Teaching Opinion

Failure Is the New Perfect

By Starr Sackstein — December 10, 2017 3 min read
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Terrified to the point of anxiety, the fear of failing used to render me paralyzed as a younger person trying so hard to be perfect. I didn’t like to collaborate because I didn’t believe that anyone could do it as well I could.

Looking back now, I can’t possibly imagine how many rich opportunities I robbed myself of and how much learning I robbed from other people who were in a group with me.

Controlling would have been an understatement, which is why it’s amazing to think about how far I’ve come in my adult life. Although I still have bouts of seeking the unicorn of perfection, my adult experiences have shown me how much I can learn from the agony or humility of failure.

As an educator, I did my best to help students see the beauty and possibility of real collaboration, offering them many opportunities to practice and model what it looks like with my colleagues. No matter how smart I think I am, I’m so much smarter when I’m working with other people who push my thinking and teach me new things every day.

Right now, I’m reading On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis with the administrative team at my school, and the chapter on “Knowing the World” speaks at length about failure and mistakes as a conduit for growth and learning. This is the message we must instill in our young learners so they don’t become failure-averse.

“If you believe that growth comes from risk taking, that you can’t grow without it, then it’s essential in leading people toward growth to get them to make decisions and to make mistakes” (90).

As educators, we sometimes feel like we have to know everything but it’s so untrue. Students need to see us grappling with new learning all of the time because that way we show them it’s okay. Just saying it isn’t enough. We must live the values we espouse, proving to them that to be a lifelong learner means to embrace the possibility, no, the inevitability of failure and then model how reflection can help us grow to make better decisions.

Learning is all in the decision making, the processing of the results of those decisions and then the further inquiry after the fact. Failure can no longer be a dirty word because it is essential for growth.

As my transition into leadership continues and the days of being in my own classroom get farther away, I have to learn to trust my instincts in the same way I did with the students. Those relationships sustained me. I was free to be my true me and that meant not being perfect.

Despite having a brief slide in my early thoughts as a leader (I hope they aren’t coming across to the team as loudly as they sometimes chime in my head), in terms of my need to try to do it perfectly and have everyone love me and be able to enact big change just because I said it right away, I realize that many of my attempts won’t work and that is okay. I will truly get to a point in the future where I trust my gut and keep moving forward without my own judgment and in spite of the judgment of others.

Bennis says, “Trusting the impulse always leads to growth, although sometimes through mistakes. Sometimes trusting the impulse leads directly to brilliance” (91).

Although my personal expectation is the direct-to-brilliance method (I’m actually laughing out loud as I write that), I’ve found that I learn so much more from my mistakes. Through the years as an English teacher, I got more and more comfortable saying to kids that I didn’t know, and when they did, I let them take the lead. This is true of my budding relationships with the wonderful educators on my team as well.

Each educator has something valuable to teach me, whether it is about the culture of the school or the content he or she teaches that I try to spend a portion of each day just listening. It’s in this way that I can best serve my community so that when it comes time to have to make a decision collaboratively or otherwise, I know I’m doing it with the most integrity I can.

How has failure led to success in your professional life? Please share.

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