on fear, failure, and falling short

It’s true that a parent once looked at me during a parent/teacher conference and said, “My son just needs to be inspired. My high school teacher used to jump on his desk and celebrate our ‘A’s. Can you just do that for my son?”

“Ma’am,” I said. “The problem isn’t that your son needs me to inspire him. It’s that he’s a afraid to do anything, because he doesn’t want to do it wrong.”

I think about this parent and conversation more than I probably should, because it happened almost 20 years ago. When I’m swapping teaching stories with colleagues, I often turn this story into a laugh, because at the end of the parent/teacher night, my principal looked at me and said in his best deadpan delivery, “Well, I know what you need to do during the next in-service day?”

My team looked at him and then at me.

“What’s that?” I said.

“You’re going to practice jumping on tables.”

We laughed, and I was able to let the parent critique go. Clearly, though, the parent struck a nerve. She said aloud – in front of my colleagues, in front of my boss, in front of her son and my student … you’re not inspirational. To a young teacher, her words felt an awful like being called a fraud. I wondered what ultimate goal I was pursuing with all the time I was spending with and on the young people in my classroom.

Over the years, I’ve begun to think of that story (and many other moments) in a new way. I think I was on to something in what I was noticing with the student: He was afraid and that’s what motivated his actions and his inaction. More and more, I am beginning to see my work as an educator as one in which I help people deal with failure, falling short, and fear.

Five or six weeks ago I watched a movie that I still can’t shake. Monsieur Lazhar is about an Algerian immigrant in Montreal who takes over an elementary classroom mid-year, because the class’s teacher committed suicide. The movie could have gone a bunch of different directions, and I almost turned off the movie after the first scene in which a young boy comes in early from recess to find that his teacher had hanged herself right there in the classroom. I stuck with the movie, though, because I wanted to see how the story revealed how young people and the adults in their charge responded.

I found the movie to be lovely in the most humane of ways: it’s a story of how a teacher and a group of students grieve together, how they learn from one another, how their relationship is a fragile one. Lazhar, the teacher, creates structure to help make the classroom distinct and predictable. He sees the healing power of a simple touch, despite the directive that any physical contact between students and teachers was out-of-bounds. He creates opportunities for students to talk, and he does so by slowly and deliberately building trust within the walls of the classroom. They laugh. They cry. They do mundane things together. They heal but don’t really find clear answers or tight endings.

This is not a movie in which the teacher-as-superhero myth is presented. It’s an intimate movie in that we slowly grow to know and respect the people we spend time with together. It’s the closest I’ve seen a movie capture what it’s like to grow close with that special class you have every now and then. People aren’t “saved” by sweeping actions, but by doing the work that all healthy relationships do: talk about the hard stuff, celebrate successes, put disagreements on the table, forgive, and more. It’s those small, quiet, difficult actions that create the chance for people to change or to heal.

Of course, not every class or school year deals with as dramatic and draining of situations as a suicide. However, we do ask our students to take risks with or in front of peers each time we meet. This is especially true in classrooms where students create art, stories, poems, music and/or where students publicly offer personal positions and anecdotes to support those claims. Falling short, flopping, and simply not meeting one’s hope is a constant possibility for us and for students. It takes courage to create, because ambiguity, uncertainty, and flopping miserably are possibilities. (Ralph Keyes writes well about this in The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear).

I wonder, how do we help young people to recognize fear, but not be paralyzed by it? How do we do so not just in one-on-one instances, but also in classroom and school communities?

Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston each write about developing dynamic mindsets, rather than fixed mindsets, through our talk and actions with young people. That is, we want students to not see themselves as a fixed set of traits (e.g., I’m a good/bad writer. I’m a good/bad student.), but rather we want to help them see growth and change as possibilities (e.g., I’m not a good writer … yet.)

This plays out in organizations and communities too. Yesterday, the NY Times ran an opinion piece entitled “The Power of Failure.” It’s a piece that focuses on nonprofits, development agencies, foundations, and other kinds of organizations that each experience failures, such as a organizational drift, misspent or dwindling dollars, risks taken that fall through, and so on.

Some nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures, partially for fear of donor reaction. But most acknowledge that transparency about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to their eventual success.

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it,” said Jill Vialet, who runs the nonprofit Playworks. “It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.” Vialet instead supports failing “out loud” and “forward,” meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.

Recently, I spoke about the logic of narratives. To me, narratives are about trouble and how people respond to it. I said then (and I think now) that narratives matter, because it’s our response to trouble – the fear of failure, the flops, the falling short of our hopes – when we learn about what is important to us and about what we can do next.

The opinion piece in The Times talks about the traits of organizations that learn from failure: they think it’s crucial to talk about failure aloud; they create limited or short-term experiences where risk-taking is encouraged; they develop long-term relationships that foster trust and allow for failure and growth; they are transparent about what is happening, how it got to that point, and where it’ll go next.

I saw these traits at play in Lazhar’s classroom community, and maybe that’s why I can’t shake the movie: it’s about healing, in ways both big and small. Over time. With others.

I wish I would have told that mom in that parent conference 20 years ago how I aimed to create a space to make it ok for her son to move beyond the fear of performing poorly or publicly, beyond seeing school as another place to comply. I wish I would have taken out his in-process work and showed her where he took a chance, fell short, but then came up with another way to make the move well in another piece. I wish I would have been able to say that I saw where her son was growing as a writer and as a reader and how that growth was celebrated each time I pulled up my chair next to his to talk about his writing or about the story he was reading.

I fell short in that conversation 20 years ago, but I’m still growing because of it.

Update: edited slightly since original post for clarity


  1. Kelly Smith Harwood says:

    I love this. It made me think of my own teenage son who in many ways is like your student– too afraid to fail or be wrong. I am trying to remind him that regardless of the outcome– success or failure– all I really want from him is to be passionate about life, or some aspect of life.
    I have probably contributed to his fears because of my focus on outcome. Thanks for remimding me that it is about growth. Maybe there is a little hope for me as a mom:) Never too late to change!

  2. Amanda Holland says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I too have experienced fixed mindset issues as well as the fear of failure when we learn from our challenges. I am having conversations with my peers about how to get kids to feel comfortable thinking. One of the challenges we face is that when students make their thinking visible and available to others, they may be judged. We are working on making our classrooms a place where it is okay to be wrong and learn from our mistakes.