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September 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 1

The Principal Connection / Failing Wisely

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One of the advantages of the cyclical school calendar is that every fall starts fresh and bright. Schools are filled with hope and optimism. Classroom walls are newly painted, halls have been scrubbed, and each student is full of promise. Principals welcome families, share information about the talents of new staff members, and describe the merits of improved programs. And we explain how each student will learn to succeed. This last point might be considered the most crucial; it's certainly the core around which schools make their decisions and innovations. But assuring parents about student success is not enough. We also need to explain how each student will learn to fail.
Of course we want our students to succeed. But if we want to prepare them for success—both in school and in the outside world—then they also need to learn how to fail. Or, more to the point, students need to learn how to respond to failure.
I often think about the disservice we do to students when we allow them to graduate from our schools with nothing but successes under their belts. You know the students I am describing: They're on the honor roll; they star in the school play; they excel on the athletic field. They seem to be poised for a future of unlimited success. That lofty and sharp trajectory, however, is not realistic—or even desirable.
Why? Because an unbroken string of successes in school does not adequately prepare students for the pitfalls and pratfalls that are part of life. Unless they engage in routine and predictable jobs, unless they wall off others and do not open up emotionally, unless they choose to learn nothing new, failure will occur. A student's career path may take him or her to an Ivy League campus, to an air-conditioned office, or to an auto repair shop. No matter what it is, over time that job will become more challenging and offer up more risk of failure. In addition, each student will inevitably encounter personal tests—as when a relationship with a loved one becomes strained. Other than living a life of seclusion, there really is no way to prevent these things from happening. This is life.
Our real success is determined by how we handle adversity: how we respond when we don't have the right answer, what we do when we are forced to work with someone we dislike, and how we react when our personal relationships go awry.
To be properly prepared for life's setbacks, students need to encounter their first academic and emotional bumps and bruises during their school years. School leaders have an obligation both to challenge students so that success is not always at hand and to teach students how to handle difficulties and setbacks. We must take the time to talk about frustration and failure, to help students learn from their mistakes, and to encourage them to try, try, and try again. Students need to learn to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, to seek and accept feedback, and to be tenacious. They must be able to venture back into the fray, armed with more insight and information. They need to learn to fail wisely.
Providing an opportunity for students to reflect collectively on failures—to analyze what went wrong, examine their responses to setbacks, and brainstorm how they might respond differently in the future—is essential. Sometimes students think that school is easy for everyone else, so it is important to create an environment in which students can share their feelings and learn from others' experiences.
Principals also have a responsibility to educate parents about the need for their children to encounter failure. No parent wants to see his or her child in pain, so it can be hard for them to step back and let their children's actions run the course. This seems to be especially hard for today's parents, in this age of high-stakes tests. They can be too quick to intervene and offer help when the better strategy would be to allow their children to struggle.
The important problems in life are never solved on the first try. Although we want all students to experience the joy of overcoming obstacles, they must also learn that their best efforts are not always adequate. So when we principals open our doors in the fall and talk about the successful school year that lies ahead, we also need to talk about the importance of letting students fail wisely.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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