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Failing for Success

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I took the opportunity to see Tavis Smiley on a stop of his book tour in Philadelphia last week. His new book, Fail Up, details the 20 biggest failures in Tavis's life and career. What Tavis also explains in his book is what he learned from each of those 20 experiences and how failing is indeed our best teacher.

After finishing the book, I got to thinking about my failures, as a student and as a man. Indeed we are all, in the words of Tavis, cracked vessels, and certainly my blemishes are ones that I am not proud of, yet what I learned from my failures in life have helped me to become a better human being -- a better husband, son, friend and teacher. I got to thinking about our students that we all teach or mentor; do we encourage individuals to take risk and fail in an effort to promote and increase their learning? I believe that we could do a better job, not at promoting failure and facilitating a culture that accepts failure on the face of them but rather, of creating an atmosphere where failure is accepted as a means to the end result -- learning.

I was reminded of one of my experiences teaching my class on research and study skills for academic success. In the class, in an effort to build the research skills of my students, I break the kids into groups and I create debating teams. Each week, we debate topics that are current issues such as the legality of abortion and marijuana, whether or not Michael Vick should have been allowed to come back to the NFL or whether or not reality television is a bad influence on its viewers. That first week, my 9th period class debated on the topic of the Muslim Mosque and community center being put in New York City. There was a young lady whose group was arguing the affirmative -- that, the mosque should be allowed to be built in NYC. She was really focused. She had prepared well yet her fellow classmates offered her very little support. This young lady did most of the organizing, most of the researching and most of the speaking.

Clearly frustrated with the weight of the debate work on her shoulders, her frustrations began to appear in her delivery as she spoke. She tripped over her words, she stumbled over her thoughts and she contradicted herself more than once and her opposition picked up on it. At the end of the debate she sat inconsolable. Her team lost and she felt that she was the reason for the loss. As I walked out the classroom that day, I saw her begin to cry. I walked over to her and she tried her best to hide her tears. I told her that she had nothing to cry about. The fact that she cared so much was a victory. Her passion for success is motivation enough for this young lady to be successful throughout her life. I reminded her that this was the very first debate and that she would grow and get better from this experience. I then told her to use this failure as a moment to teach her how to deal with her teammates and how to remain composed in the face of adversity when attempting a task.

Over the course of the year, the young lady got better at debating, remaining composed and leading her team. She didn't have the problem of not receiving support from her teammates because she organized a system of responsibilities that held everyone accountable. She worked on her speaking skills by practicing before each debate, mastering the use of index cards and making sure that she paused to re-gather her thoughts if she felt tripped up. At the end of the semester, she became one of the best debaters in the entire class. Her confidence grew... ultimately because she chose to use a failure in her life as a learning experience to help her grow. Had she not had the opportunity to fail, who knows when the growth would have occurred.

In this world where nothing less than academic perfection is demanded of students so that they are competitive for college acceptance, top internships and graduate school opportunities, we must not remember that the most important thing for a student isn't necessarily to get into Harvard or Yale but rather to improve and grow as an individual. Such opportunities come best when we fail. Think of your growth as an individual: our greatest lessons come from our greatest mistakes and how we respond to them. As a teacher, I believe that it is my mission to encourage learning amongst my students and to provide them with opportunities to step out of their comfort zones and learn by doing. Sometimes, they take to a task like a natural and other times, they fail. But the opportunity to learn from mistakes made makes my students better people. Learning from my mistakes and failures has made me a better teacher and a better person. I am nowhere near perfect, but I am a better man today because I learned valuable lessons from my mistakes. Indeed Samuel Beckett said it best, "Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better."