Failure Is Not an Option. It is Mandatory

October 19, 2015

One of the hardest things about being a teacher is that I want my students to be successful.

I want their projects to look good.

I want them to be proud of their work.

But, I need them to fail, and fail quite a bit on the way to success.

At least three times last week, with three different classes, this came up. Kids wanting to know how to do some complex thing, create something for which there is no rubric, no step-by-step or color-by-number. They want me to walk them through the process.

Part of me wonders if it’s a result of my own shortcomings. Maybe I’ve held their hands too much, made my instructions too explicit. Maybe I have implied that there is always a right way or a single way to solve a problem.

Part of me wonders if it is our educational environment. We teach kids in math that there is a formula for everything. Plug in the numbers and out pops an answer.

Either way, I feel a little guilty, a little unloving, as I tell the students that the answer to their question is just figure it out.

Take the clay or the paper or the paint and move your hands around them until it all looks right. If it doesn’t look right, you haven’t worked long enough.

That really is the most loving thing I can tell them. Eventually, maybe some of the students begin to realize what I am doing. They realize that the mold they fit comfortably inside all day doesn’t really work for the Art room. Maybe they realize that no one is telling me exactly what to do as their teacher, or how to do everything. It takes improvisation. It takes instinct.


Mostly, it takes a willingness to fail, to make bad work.

Success, real success, is just that: the result of a lot of failure, a lot of bad work.

There are many days when I want to shortcut that process and just tell kids the answer. I want their work to look good now. 

But I know better. When I do that, it isn’t real success. It’s just a pretty picture.

One response to Failure Is Not an Option. It is Mandatory

  1. Jeremy Nickurak October 19, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    In my profession, I’m a pretty common story. I breezed through elementary and high school without a failure, and without really lifting a finger. Hitting University left me very ill-prepared for an education that would actually expect the best I could do, and I flunked out.

    Interestingly, it was that flunking that taught me what I needed to know at an opportune time, and drove me to get my house it order, return to school, and finish not just my Bachelors, but a Masters degree.

    I’m not actually confident that I would have gone through graduate studies without the experience of failing and picking myself up again mid-university. It’s occurred to me that my failure to fail in early on led to the failure in university, which set me up for longer term success.

    Conversely, had I failed to fail to fail early on, I might have responsibly wrapped up university with just the bachelor’s degree and moved on to work, and probably wouldn’t be doing anything as interesting and rewarding as I do now.