I believe in failure. I believe that failure has power to move people like no other force outside of capitalism and gravity. Some of the most radical, life-changing, monumental people in history were borne of failure. Abraham Lincoln failed as a business owner and postmaster. Albert Einstein failed elementary school. Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team. We tell our children these stories of failure not because the failure was magnificent, but because the failure was overcome. Not everyone, though, fails as well as Lincoln, Einstein, and Jordan did. Those who don’t fail well see failure as obstacle that blocks the path rather than a challenge to overcome.
I see the effects of failure each year in my students. I teach psychology at a suburban high school in Alabama. Some people might think that we in Alabama are used to other people thinking of us as failures. But my students, who are products of affluent parents and caring educators, usually fear failure more than death or even public speaking. When they fail a test, or fail to bring in a homework assignment, or fail to do the right thing, they collapse in the face of failure. Persistence is not their default option. I believe school has taught them that failure is to be avoided, punished, and feared. The very structure of school is designed to prevent students from rising above their failures and learning from their mistakes. We teach a unit, give a test on the information, and then we move on, rarely going back to reteach material the students didn’t get the first time. In school, there are no second chances, no do-overs. When I give back tests in my class, I hear all sorts of pessimistic explanations for why they failed. “I’ll never do well in this class!” “I studied for 3 hours, and I still can’t pass!” “I’m just too stupid to understand this stuff!” I hear them say things about themselves that I would get fired for if I said them. I believe we teach children that if they don’t understand history, math, language, or science the first time, they must not have what it takes to succeed in this world. They might as well quit, since we are moving on without them.
We must figure out how to teach failing well. We should give students opportunities to fix mistakes. We should offer make-up tests so students can demonstrate that they did, eventually, learn. We should help them see the value of failure so they will not be so stymied by it. Failure is inevitable. True character stems from how well failure is handled, not whether it is avoided at all costs. I like to think that my triumphs over failure have defined me more than my successes. My mother always told me that what didn’t kill me only made me stronger. And I’m glad to say that I’m not dead yet. This I believe.
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