Monday, April 7, 2014

F: Failing to Fail--A Paradox? #AtoZChallenge (Day 6)

Trying to think of a topic fitting for an education blog that meets the A to B Challenge (F) for today stirred feelings of failure in me. Should I write about failure? Should I write about fear? I considered writing about "F-Pattern Reading," which is itself a form of failure. I thought about Billy Collins's poem "Forgetfulness" and the ways my memory fails me so often these days. At times that makes me fearful.

The intersection of fear and failure in education is paradoxical.

Who among us hasn't heard stories about the number of times Michael Jordan missed a shot during his professional career? Who hasn't heard stories about Babe Ruth's many strikeouts?

From Albert Einstein to Oprah to Walt Disney and many others, those who have achieved the heights of success have experienced the depths of failure. "Famous Failures"reminds us of Emily Dickinson's truth:

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear! 
--Emily Dickinson

How can we teach students the power of success or lead them to success if we never allow them to fail? Yet our cookie-cutter educational paradigm too often instills in students the notion that there is only one right answer--the one on the test's answer sheet, the one SAT, ACT, SBAC, PAARCC, et al. names.

As a speech teacher, I know kids live in fear of failure. They worry about standing in front of the class and delivering a speech. They worry that others will reject their ideas, their topic, them.

To ease their fears, I tell students about my many failures in speech. When I was in eighth grade, I realized that I couldn't speak in public (at church) without falling apart. I took speech in ninth grade. For more than half the year, I had to restart every speech because I'd always have a break down. I took the competitive speech class--much to my coach's dismay. She took me to tournaments and let me fail, which I did--repeatedly. I did not win a trophy until my senior year in high school. I earned some speech and debate scholarships. My senior year in college, I was 10th in Oratory at the Phi Kappa Delta national tournament, and my debate partner and I finished 9th in CEDA debate at that tournament.

Had I quit when I failed, I would never have experienced success.

Nothing in life comes easily to me. I'm almost always a failure--before I'm a success.

We are failing to fail. By that I mean we each need to embrace our failures as opportunities to learn, find a way to begin again, and work our way through so we can taste the sweet nectar of success.


  1. Success is always sweeter when it comes at the end of a road of failures. And I think failure is an important part of education--not that we want kids to fail, but that they accept failure as part of the learning process, and grow from it.

    Good post! :)

  2. The first time I got an F--on a math test, naturally, I burst into tears in front of the entire class.
    It was foolish on the part of the teachers to have the students grade each other's papers while they read off the answers. My friend Angie wasn't malevolent, but she was a bit clueless. She announced to the entire class, with a wide-eyed expression on her face, that Tempest had gotten an F.
    I'm visiting from the A to Z. I enjoy blogs by educators, as they humanize teachers. We were always taught to see our teachers as remote and authoritarian.

    1. I actually live under the desk and blog from there! ;-)
      My eighth grade history teacher rearranged the seating chart after each test, based on the test scores. I had to sit in the second row as opposed to the first one after not earning my usual A on a test. It was a mortifying experience.
      I don't give tests, generally speaking, and I rarely put grades on papers.

  3. I truly believe if we never fail, then we won't ever know the feeling of real success. How deep was that? haha. Great post.

  4. This is the second post I have read on failure for the F word and both of you have the similar theme of how important failure is in growing. As a teacher and a person who has gone through certain experiences, I have had to face my failures so many times. Thanks for writing this, I look forward to reading more.

    Since the other post is for the A-Z challenge as well, I am going to add the link here. Perhaps you would enjoy reading how someone else talked on the same topic.

    1. Thank you so much. Your comment makes me think about how teachers are labeled failures--in a generalized way--these days. Perhaps I should have thought about qualifying the term "failure" somewhat to suggest that there's a big difference between learning and moving forward after a failure and being beaten down w/ the moniker, failure.

  5. I think it's easier to accept that failure is a part of eventual success as you get older. It's more difficult for students.

  6. We need to teach students how to respond to failure, as too often their first response is to give up. They need to learn how to reflect, revise their approach, restrategize, etc. What you say is so true: "Had I quit when I failed, I would never have experienced success." Students often equate failure with something lacking within themselves, rather than a need for more practice, or a different approach/strategy for learning, or more effort. If we allow students to fail and then teach them how to regroup after failure, they will have the keys to success. Such a great topic and blogpost, Glenda. As always.

  7. I liked the paragraph about moving from petrified speech student to winner in college (What persistence!) Giving failure a positive spin, like how it's an important part of any process (playing sports, instruments, writing) makes it better. It gives us permission to try/keep trying.

    stopping by from the A to Z Challenge ... happy writing this month

  8. Wonderful post! Yes, we need to remind students that failure is part of life, it helps us to learn and grow. All great inventors failed numerous times before a success. Failure should be looked on as another opportunity to do and be better : ) It is a tough concept to instill though. Even my own children seem to think it is easier to give up (and it seems that way) but to persevere and continue strengthens us more than we usually can imagine. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words.
    ~Lucy at Kids Math Teacher