It is interesting to me that one of the most prevalent topics being discussed by many in the world of education today is the issue of failure and the need to make it more appealing both to students and to parents. I suppose this strikes me as interesting, if not a little ironic, because we in Independent Schools have spent the better part of the last thirty years convincing folks that we are more than a little like Lake Woebegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are . . . above average.” In fact, this tendency to overestimate our capabilities has become known as "The Lake Woebegone Effect."
Unfortunately, Independent Schools are more than a little complicit in creating this effect when, on the one hand, we tout things like elite college placement and high standardized test scores—neither of which leaves any room for error, much less failure. At the same time, we promise a “holistic” approach to education in which there is “no child left behind.” I worry as an Independent School Head that this attempt to be all things to all people ends up making us look at best naïve and at worst duplicitous. How can we advertise the benefits of failure while at the same time promoting some of the most success-driven aspects of the 21st Century’s educational marketplace?
Insert into this personal (and professional) conundrum an interesting article I read last week in the New York Times entitled, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” After reading this piece and discussing it with friends and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that my generation of parents doesn’t really know what to think about this “new” topic of failure-as-educator. We grew up in an era where straight “A’s” were worth striving for and weren’t attainable by everyone; however, it is our same generation that has ushered in the concept of “grade inflation,” lifting an “F” to a “C” and making the “A” commonplace. We remember trying out for athletic teams and artistic roles, waiting anxiously to see if our names would avoid the “cut list,” but we are raising our children in arenas and auditoriums where we have eliminated cut lists, and where everyone gets a part and everyone gets to play.
We don’t know what to think of failure because we’ve helped eradicate it from the landscape in which we now live—that’s what Lake Woe-Be-GONE means, right? Whether this has happened as a reaction to some generational trauma or whether it is the natural evolution of a more enlightened species is a question for anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. For me as an educator and a parent, I just want to know how to help create the best possible learning atmosphere among the students in our school and the children in my house.
At the conclusion of the Times article is this bit of rational insight into why we may have spent the last thirty years sheltering our children and ourselves from failure. I will quote it at length because I think it speaks directly to what’s at the heart of our mission here at PS and what should be at the heart of any good school’s mission—whether Independent or not:
“This [protection from failure] is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.”
We talk a great deal about our mission here, which has at its heart a critical partnership between the Family and the School. I think that this partnership works best when, first and foremost, we both can agree that facilitating our children’s struggles with whatever the “hardship” may be (e.g., low grades, hurt feelings, or athletic disappointment) is far preferable to keeping them from that hardship altogether. Secondly, we must also agree to communicate our expectations for making these experiences about personal growth for everyone involved. We find ourselves at cross-purposes when we either disagree about the inevitability of these challenges or we fail to communicate our expectations about how best to confront them.
One of the most difficult roles any Head of School confronts, I am learning, is that of “Parenting Expert.” Rest assured, this is not a role to which I aspire, nor is it one I feel particularly qualified to assume. Parenting is the most difficult job we will ever do, and let’s be honest, I am in the thick of my own “hardships” and “challenges” as the father of a seven-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy.
However, as a parent in our School (who happens also to be the Headmaster), I can tell you this: I see the real-life manifestations of this honest partnership at work each and every day.
- I see it when a team of teachers stops by to strategize about a student whose nascent intelligence is being inhibited by social and emotional skills that are lagging. Instead of ignoring or giving into this challenging child’s failings, these teachers are brainstorming ways with his parents to help his peer interactions catch up with his paper interactions.
- I see it when a child who struggles deeply with transitions receives, unsolicited at the end of the school year, a booklet outlining the in’s and out’s of her next grade level . . . from a teacher in that grade level who doesn’t even know the child yet. The booklet turns out to be an even better resource for the child’s parents over the course of the next school year.
- I see it when fourth and fifth grade teachers, learning specialists from the AEC, and school administrators meet over the course of three days to discuss the personalities, learning styles, family dynamics, and challenges of each child rising into the first grade of our Middle School.
- I see it when our 8th grade teachers deftly, carefully, and lovingly navigate the inevitable disappointments our students (and their parents) receive during the high school admission process.
I see all of these (and countless other examples), certainly, through the proud eyes of the Head of this remarkable school. However, I also see all of these through the searching eyes of a parent in need of a partner to help me in the daunting task of raising my own children. As that parent I can’t imagine better partners to help me with this difficult job than the caring faculty and staff of this good place who genuinely want to work with me to help my own little ones grow into the people God wants them to be.
Now, that sounds like a Lake Woebegone I can buy into; in fact, it sounds more like Lake Woe-be-Overcome . . . “where all the teachers are honest, all the parents are trusting, and there’s confidence in every child.”
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration on this topic. As a disclaimer, you should know that I am the proverbial member of the choir. However, here are my thoughts as a parent of 8, 5, and 3 year old Presbyterian students. I see the value of a focused and enthusuastic faculty. I do not see the value of guaranteed A's on my child's well-being. I want my children to grow into excited learners, with the self-discipline to acheive their goals. I believe that by high school age, we have started to pass the window for creating enthusiasm for learning, so we need to focus on this much earlier. Curriculum is very important, but inspiring curiosity in my children is what I am really after in these early years. Working on my 8th cumulative year at PS, I know my kids have different needs and personalities. They have had excellent teachers. They are all excited about school and run down the hall to their classes each morning (and not just because they are late)! This is the real value in a private school education.
I appreciate that you charged the faculty members this summer with thinking about their strengths, and how they can bring them to the classroom. A teacher who loves what they do and has the freedom and encouragement to use their talents for the betterment of their students is a gift.
Kudos and keep it up!
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