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Why Failure Is Essential to Success
Failure is not a word commonly associated with Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30. Last week, I was among the 10 Teach For America alumni honored on the list in the Education category, and I was immediately swamped with articles and words of praise about how accomplished I am.
Yet I think my failures are what make me successful.
Our students often don’t receive the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes. How do we teach failure in an educational system that rewards achievement and strict accountability for attaining it? How do we teach failure in a way that empowers our students instead of breaks them down?
For example, I’ll never forget the first time I asked a girl out on a date. I thought for hours about how I would do it and planned every single little detail. Then, the moment of truth: I walked up to her, asked her out, and got flat-out rejected.
I was stunned and embarrassed, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: You can’t script out everything in life. If I had taken the time to listen to her or get to know her, my approach might have been more effective.
As teachers, we tend to work toward making our classrooms into the perfect model for success. However, we never think about how that perfected model affects the way our students view failure and how to deal with it. For instance, we plan every single minute of a lesson, but we forget that the most valuable learning occurs when a student tries things, fails, adapts, and reflects. In time, this reflection process causes a student to start self-adapting without even realizing it, which is essential to success in college and in the workplace.
At first, I was petrified of building a classroom that taught my students how to fail. I was afraid of my classroom data, my principal’s opinion, parents, and my students’ grades. However, I eventually recognized that while failure is uncomfortable, it becomes easier to deal with if we teach it through the lens of a passion. In other words, if you love music, it’s much easy to adapt and reflect with it, rather than taking missteps in something like physics if it’s not your favorite subject.
As a 2013 corps member in Memphis, I built my classroom through a combination of passion, real world skills, and a reflective process that includes failing. But instead of teaching my students just how to fail, I was teaching my students how to dream, adapt strategies to achieve those dreams, and then build those dreams for others.
In four years, I’ve taken the dream model from my classroom to 1,000 students a year with Let’s Innovate through Education. The dream of LITE-MEMPHIS is to close the racial wealth gap in Memphis by empowering minority students to launch businesses in their own communities through a 10-year talent pipeline. The pipeline includes a six-month entrepreneurial program for students to build ideas in high school, a paid internship matching program for alumni in college, and a venture capital fund to invest in growing their businesses as adults.
Every person errs at some point in their lives. But life isn’t about what our mistakes are; it’s about how we adjust to them. Instead of trying to create a classroom that avoids failure, let’s teach our children how to deal with it and how to build structural solutions to the problems that they face daily. Instead of telling our students how to learn, let’s build learning systems that allow them to self-adapt and self-reflect so they can use their own voices in crafting their education.