As parents searching for the ideal school environment for our children, we envision our progeny thriving in a school that focuses energy and attention on avenues and initiatives that lead toward exhibitable success. But what about exhibitable failure? You’d be hard pressed to find any school touting failure as its raison d’etre, and yet it just may be that helping kids to fail is the loftiest mission of any school today.
What does a school look like that advocates failure?
• This is a school that encourages risk taking and out-on-the-limb deep thinking that does not always produce the right answer.
• This is a school that sets the bar high and purposely creates expectations that cannot always be reached.
• This is a school that emphasizes tasks in each area of multiple intelligence so all children have moments at the bottom, moments at the top, and moments that let their tzelem elohim, their God-given spark, shine brightly.
What does a student look like in a school that advocates failure?
•He understands that process is more important than product.
• She is resilient — she can get up after a defeat, brush herself off, and begin a new lesson without diminished confidence and motivation.
• He is reflective and open to feedback — a student who asks himself what went wrong and how he can minimize those obstacles for the next task or project.
What does a parent look like in a school that advocates failure?
• She steps back from that ever-present hover and allows a kid to do kid work.
• He is present for that end-of-the-day hug — to remind a child that parental pride comes not from the top score, but from the attempt to play the game, to join the fray, to opt in instead of opting out.
• He pushes his child to avoid the easy A and instead take the road less traveled.
In the midst of Rosh Hashanah, the importance of allowing for failure in our children’s lives is all the more highlighted by the Torah text the rabbis have chosen for us to read publicly. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about a long-barren Sara who sees her son Yitzhak quarreling with Ishmael. How does Sara react? Sara goes to Abraham and says, “Get rid of that boy Ishmael.”
Instead of having Yitzhak deal with the challenges and difficulty that Ishmael represents, instead of exposing Yitzhak to the possibilities of failure, Sara grasps upon the quick fix — get rid of the problem — and Yitzhak defaults to alpha male status. But does he really?
Of all the known characters in the Torah, it is Yitzhak who is the most passive. It is Yitzhak who just kind of seems “there” as actions happen to him, rather than being an active creator of his own destiny.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Abraham going off to sacrifice his son and we cannot help but secretly wish that Abraham will risk the success of his mission and say, “No, I won’t do what you’re asking of me God. There are values that I hold higher than my successful completion of your test.”
The world that our children will face in the future is one we do not fully understand. More likely than not, each one of our children will end his or her career in a job and field different from the one held in the beginning. Although I can’t predict which job will result in success and which endeavor will be met with failure, I can tell you this — it won’t be those high flying moments of success when your child will come looking for help and strategies to cope and push onward.
It will be those moments of rejection and failure when our children, all grown up, will want to reach deep inside to recall how to reflect honestly, to reaffirm their spark of divinity, and to remember how to stand tall and resilient.
Let’s hope that in those moments of need their bouncing-back skills are ready, waiting and nearly hardwired because they were deliberately practiced, intentionally modeled and continually revisited throughout their educational experience.
As we begin this New Year, let’s give our schools the permission to succeed at teaching our children how to fail.