Failure Should Shape Us But Not Define Us

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Denis Waitley

There is truly nothing like failure because it has the power to both stop and start, ambition, creativity, learning and growth. Most importantly, it has the ability to start and stop success. As an educator, I work with different types of failure everyday, not the crippling, ‘I can’t go on type,’ but more of the ‘I will keep working at it and not give up’ type. Make no mistake because there is a huge difference between the two types, especially as it relates to children.

I believe that we could all agree that success is almost always preceded by failure whether it involves learning to walk or sending a rocket to the moon. Failure is a necessary and vital part of human experience. Failure can make us stronger, smarter and more efficient, but so often we treat failure with disdain and contempt. And like people, schools can also fall into this same way of thinking.

In good schools, you will find teachers encouraging and challenging students and celebrating both successes and failures in their learning, while at the same time, modeling this exact same behavior in their teaching. Think about how many times we ask students to try something new, to look at it from another angle, to think outside the box, or to step outside of their comfort zone, yet many times as educators this “fear” of failure has prevented us from doing the same with our teaching. That’s right, good teachers fail. In fact, some of the best teachers I have had, and or worked with, have had some of the most epic fails. What made them great was not the failure but the exercise of learning from their failure, and the spirit of not letting failure define them or their work.

I wish that I had been told as a child that failure is an inevitable part of the human experience because I had been, I probably would have had a lot less stress in my life and probably more success. I was that kid that hated to color outside of the lines, had to have all my letters and words fit neatly on the page, and worried constantly about whether “I got it right.” I worried so much at times that I was paralyzed into inaction for fear of failing. Maybe I would have been a great musician or an award-winning scientist!

Yet failure propelled me in other areas. Failure pushed me in athletics and academics to be better. It helped me understand the power of not giving up. It made me stronger emotionally and physically. It pushed me past what I thought I was even capable of, at times. And now as an educator, it helps me see the power of failure to motivate and teach. As a parent of three, I encourage the “beautiful oops” of coloring outside of the lines and compliment the effort of writing the words as opposed to the failure of staying in the lines. As the Head of School of Louisville Collegiate School, I work with almost 150 faculty and staff and almost 700 students and “getting it right” all of the time is impossible; and this is why I love my job.

I love to walk into classrooms and see students presenting, working on problems, and thinking critically. I love to see teachers facilitating conversations about the content and challenging our students to both have an opinion and back it up with evidence. I love it when teachers and students stop me in the halls or come by office to tell me about an idea they have or about something that they are working on. I love it when they tell me they have tried something and it worked beautifully, and I love it when they tell me they had a beautiful failure. Embracing failure does not mean that failure is expected, it simply means that failure will not paralyze us from trying again, and again, and again. It means that we have stopped seeing failure as something that stops us but instead see it as something that motivates and encourages us to keep trying and to ultimately be our best selves. Failure should shape us, but it should never define us because as J.M. Barrie writes, “We are all failures – at least the best of us are.” VT

By Dr. James Calleroz White, Head of School at Louisville Collegiate School