School & District Management Opinion

Leaders Who Don’t Fear Failure Become Change Agents

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 22, 2018 4 min read
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We need new learning environments and we need new school leaders to create them. We cannot have one without the other. It is the confluence of leadership and change that moves education forward... as well of support and professionalism of our teachers. We need this now. We need people with courage and vision and hope. We need thinkers and doers. We need decision makers, collaborators and communicators. We need listeners, deep listeners. We need those who understand curriculum and teaching and learning, assessment, evaluation and data. Our leaders must be open hearted and open minded and curious, confident and vulnerable. We need leaders who lead and who can invite and cultivate followers. But, let’s not forget one thing. Something about which we seldom talk in leadership preparation programs. We need leaders who understand child development and who love children. It is this that sets our work apart from all other leadership.

School leaders struggled past the time when accountability and testing was new. We have survived and have not allowed the reduction of children to test taking machines and teachers to monitors of those test skills and results. Now, we have been thrown into a reality where refocusing on the most basic of needs, physical safety, requires constant vigilance. The new type of leader we need cannot stand by and wait for lawmakers to decide how to prevent school shootings. For if they do, surely there will be dissatisfaction with the solutions. Whether it is arming teachers, hiring more guards, placing metal detectors in schools, re-writing gun laws and regulations or drills and training and community collaboration with increased mental health services, there will be those who are not satisfied.

How can leaders be focused on building coalitions of change with business and higher education partners, asking teachers to change the way they plan their lessons and students to change the nature of their learning behaviors when suddenly we are all focused on safety? There is no one single answer. But, those who know and love know that frightened children cannot learn well.

Failure Is Not An Option

Is it possible for one human being to master the skills and abilities a school leader now must possess? Failure is not an option, but it will happen now and then. A shift in thinking about failure in our risk-averse school cultures may offer a key to success. For each leader, there is an individual journey to discover where strengths lie, where fears limit, and where weaknesses need compensation. And, for each leader, it is an individual journey to determine the ways in which the immediate is attended and not at the cost to the important. This is an old Stephen Covey insight, the urgent so often takes precedence over the important.

When the urgent and the important coincide, the goodness of a person and the trust that has been built over time will carry those moments with a leader. We are at a choice point where the risk averse profession we have chosen needs us to not only change the way we feel about risk and failure, but to change the way others do too. Are we strong enough and do school boards remember that learning involves mistakes and failures and growing and moving toward success? We can no longer accept the same schedules we have used for decades, the same view of homework or testing, or grading, the same view of meeting standards or communicating. For those who have long held a bias against social media and believed it holds danger and does harm, they are beign reinforced this week by issues of Facebook and and confidentiality and data mining. Simultaneously, it also does good. Just watch how the high school students from Parkland are using it as activists to promote change.

Conquer Fear of Failure with Vision for Change

In order for a new kind of leadership and a new kind of school to arise, fear of failure must be conquered and a vision for the change mastered.The fear of failure is not only to be mediated by the leader her- or him- self, but be spread throughout the system. Teachers and students can flourish in an environment in which failure comes to be seen as a step along the way. Without that shift in thinking, there can be no journey. Without change we remain static institutions in a rapidly changing world. That makes no sense. To think about ones own relationship with risk and fear, we turn to the words of President Theodore Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.