Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

This past week, the Smithsonian Education Lab’s #mpossible Twitter chat focused on how we as educators can get students to follow their passions. While the conversation hovered around having strong educators eventually it went in the direction of the idea of failure. When anyone is wholeheartedly following a passion, that tiny nagging voice creeps in, no matter who you are. Whether it be a fear of failing or just a fear of not succeeding, that voice hinders progress and creativity. But whose fear is worse, the student’s or our own?

Learning happens when we fail. So much of our failure happens as children, as does so much of our learning. As we age, failure becomes less ‘acceptable’. Bombing a test, writing a poor paper, ending a relationship – as time goes on the idea of failure becomes greater and greater, until taking a chance becomes a thing of the past. We become ‘safe’- knowing what works in life and lessons. But what good is this?

This fear, regardless of size, can seep into the classroom. Know when you are having a bad day and it just seems your students either can tell and add to it, or say things like ‘are you tired?’  (My personal favorite, which translates to ‘you look old today’). Just like in a good friendship, they can pick up on emotional states.  When you fear failure, they become self-conscious. Their risks are viewed with a magnifying class and seen as such – risks. How can we expect our students to follow their passions freely and take chances if we dampened those same passions and fear those same chances?

Working on the fear of failure is a lot like training for a marathon. While it will not happen overnight – it’s something that CAN be worked on.  Start by being comfortable with your idea of ‘failure.’ I just taught the first day of an Improv for Educators class in NYC and one of the educators said during reflection, ‘This is hard!’ I replied, ‘You did great, what did you think was hard?’ ‘Thinking of the right thing to say,’ she said. One of the keys of improv is owning your reality. Nothing that was said in class that night was ‘wrong’; there were moments when they followed their instincts and a knee-jerk reaction of ‘what did I just say’ occurred, mainly in the beginning of class. As class progressed, comfort started to creep in, and there were considerably less of those moments of failure fear. That educator thought if she said the ‘wrong’ thing, she failed.  The contrary is true in improv – it allows you comfort in ‘failure.’

We can also see failure as a celebratory experience – celebrated for taking a chance. A good friend and colleague told me, ‘your tour is your laboratory’ – which can easily be extended to a classroom. Try new things and if they fail, at least you tried.  I’m not saying scrap lesson plans for zany ideas – but maybe try one new thing a day, or spice up an old lesson with something unexpected. Utilize another improv technique, the ‘failure bow,’ with your colleagues. When you try something and it fails, say it out loud to the group, take a bow and be met with applause. When we raise our comfort level with ‘failing’ our students feel that support and are empowered.

Finally, adjust the definition of failure. What is a failure? The Post-It, Frisbee and chocolate chip cookie – all were ‘failures’ – items that were not intended to be such. Take a moment and imagine the world without any of those things. Don’t let yours or your student’s fear keep the world waiting for the next chocolate chip cookie.

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