Teach & Serve II, No. 11 – Failure Is an Option

Teach & Serve II, No. 11 – Failure Is an Option

October 19, 2016

Failure, under the right circumstances, is good for us and good for our students.

Apollo 13 is a wonderful movie. It has everything I love in film. It’s beautifully directed by Ron Howard, has a great cast featuring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinese, the Oscar nominated Kathleen Quinlan and Kevin Bacon and, those of us with minds for such things, remember Ed Harris (also nominated for an Academy Award) and his performance as NASA stalwart Gene Krantz. In fact, after “Houston, we have a problem” his line “Failure is not an option” is the most quoted bit of dialogue from the film.

apollo-13Remember the moment: the astronauts running out of oxygen, their ship seemingly irreparably damaged and the earth-bound engineers have to find a way to get them home. Certainly, in that moment, failure was absolutely not an option and fail the brainiacs at NASA did not. Astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew were brought safely back to Earth.

In our work as educators with our students and, perhaps, more pressingly, their families, do we sometimes err too much towards the idea that failure is not an option?

I am not talking about failing grades. We all understand the high stakes involved when we “fail” our students. The ramifications are tremendous and can have disastrous consequences for our students. Surely, some will receive these grades and will have to do what they can to recoup their losses. But this is not the failure of which I write.

If one is coming from the perspective that an educator does all she can to ensure that a student does not fail, I am in almost complete agreement. I almost completely support that perspective. I respond very, very well to teachers and administrators who believe no one should fail on their respective watches and put in place all the machinations to try to keep failure at bay. I hope we all do all we can to help our students succeed.

Do you read some hesitation here?

I am hesitant. I am hesitant to wholly endorse the idea that part of the role of educators is to eradicate failure.

When we fail at something – something about which we care and this is an important distinction (this entire post is predicated on the idea that good educators inspire students to care about their subjects and their work) – can we not learn from the process? Does our failure not often compel better effort and harder work in the future?

I would argue that it does. Our failure, in the hands of the right teacher, does inspire us to be better. It does inspire us to do better. Again, if the teacher has the trust of the student and has made the material relevant to the students’ life, failure is an option.

We know that our society mocks participation ribbons and critiques the “everyone is special” culture. We know that there is a line of thought that suggests that this sort of treatment of kids is making entire generations soft and is leaving them unprepared to face the “Real.” “World.”

I don’t know that I would go that far. But I do know that some failure, some striving, some reaching for that which has alluded our grasp and is difficult to attain is good for us.

Failure, under the right circumstances, is good for us and good for our students.

Though, I grant it would not have been good for those fellas on Apollo 13. For them, I am glad failure was not an option. For the rest of us, let’s create an environment in which it is.