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November 2, 2022
ASCD Blog

Normalizing Professional Failure

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School leaders can help teachers “fail forward,” one mistake at a time.
School Culture
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Credit: Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock
Projections around life expectancy tell us that, sooner rather than later, humans will routinely live to 115 years old. In many respects, an increase in life expectancy feels like progress; however, it’s possible that a majority of these additional 35 years added to the average American life span will be spent working. This means students who are in the 5th grade in 2022 may still be part of the workforce in the 22nd century. 
Though teachers and school leaders are seeking to prepare students for the future, we are using methodologies that are largely indistinguishable from the early 20th century. If schools do not change, we will stifle students’ capacity to navigate complexity, adapt to uncertainty, and thrive in a future of their own design. Instead, schools must equip students with the skills they need to successfully navigate the unknowns of the future.
Fortunately, success isn’t predicated on large-scale, fundamental changes. Change is accomplished through an accumulation of small, iterative shifts—shifts that are the byproduct of educators’ expertise and dedication but also the result of purposeful risk-taking and measured experimentation. 

A Culture of Professional Failure

School leaders must admit, however, that risk-taking and experimentation can be in short supply in our classrooms because they require something incredibly difficult—accepting failure. It’s one thing to intellectually understand that not every risk will bring reward. But it’s another thing to actually take that risk and then fail. No teacher wants to feel like they are “failing” their students. 
As school leaders, it is incumbent upon us to help teachers become confident risk-takers by fostering a culture that embraces, even celebrates, the most atomic building block of innovation—failure!
Importantly, a culture of professional failure in pursuit of innovative solutions should not be conflated with interpersonal failings. Professional failure cannot be haphazard or flippant but must be a legitimate attempt at a new task or an investment in the development of a new skill. “Failing forward” happens when educators push themselves to the edge of their knowledge or experience, thus exposing gaps, raising questions, and opening the possibility for reflection and analysis. This is starkly different from a teacher casually misgendering a student, for example, or exhibiting racial intolerance that jeopardizes a child’s feelings of psychological safety in school. A school culture that embraces failing forward models the messy, exciting process in which discoveries are made and innovation occurs—and it’s the type of problem-solving we will need to modernize our schools.

Normalizing Failure

Here are a few talking points you can use to normalize professional failure and help encourage teachers to be the type of confident mistake-makers that will drive a school forward:
Set the tone. In his book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, Warren Bennis shares a possibly apocryphal, but nonetheless poignant anecdote about IBM founder Thomas J. Watson. “At some point during Thomas Watson’s tenure at IBM, a promising junior executive was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose more than $10 million. It was a disaster. When Watson called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, ‘I guess you want my resignation,’ to which Watson replied, ‘You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you.’”Most people have been socialized to avoid failure. We know that this response is exacerbated in the workplace when we, as school leaders, display aggravation, annoyance, or antipathy in the face of it. As school leaders, we can change the way our faculty perceive failure by taking a page out of Thomas Watson’s leadership playbook. By responding to failure with a future-facing orientation, we incentivize the pursuit of future learning. 
Don’t forget to laugh: Research has found that humor after a mistake can positively influence learning. Humor is a dispositional hinge point that can defuse the self-admonishment that may naturally arise following failure. When you respond to failure with a magnanimous chuckle or genial grin, it can translate into your faculty doing the same. In the face of failure, part of our job is to remind our faculty that imperfection is a part of life and that they should not paralyze themselves in pursuit of perfection. Our adaptive, humorful orientation toward failure can have a leveling and comforting effect, so when we approach failure with a sense of humor, it can translate into those around us doing the same--lowering the stakes of a situation before embarking on the serious work of learning from the mistake. 
To err is human (but don’t take it personally): In 1985, President Ronald Reagan visited a military cemetery in Germany to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VE-Day. This visit soon became a potentially legacy-defining controversy when it was revealed that the cemetery housed the graves of 49 Nazi SS officers. The press corps both in the United States and Europe had a field day with this serious snafu. It wasn’t until Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, reminded the world that our mistakes do not define our personhood: “When a friend makes a mistake,” Peres told the press, “the friend remains a friend and the mistake remains a mistake.” If we are to remain open to learning from our mistakes, Peres provides our roadmap. “When I, a decent, well-meaning person makes a mistake, I remain a decent, well-meaning person and the mistake remains a mistake.” When a decent, well-meaning teacher makes a mistake, they remain a decent, well-meaning teacher—no mistake can change that. If we want teachers to be confident risk-takers, we need to remind them that their failures do not define them. By helping teachers to disentangle themselves from their failures, they are more likely to learn from what went wrong.
These past few school years have been exceptionally challenging. Our teachers want to know that, despite the way that conditions have conspired to create such challenging circumstances, they remain effective. So, how do we create the sort of professional culture that allows our teachers to be truly effective in an age widely defined by change and disruption? One way is by cultivating a culture of innovation founded on risk-taking, failure, reflection, and growth.
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