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Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows Educator Blog

Failure... a step toward success!
March 11, 2010 by nammie


Today is our school’s 2nd Annual Invention Convention & Science Fair.  Apparently, we only get to call it “annual” in its second year…so today we have reached this great milestone!

Seriously though, I have been astounded over the years (and this is not being overly melodramatic) at the incredibly inflated expectations of today’s parents toward their children’s potential.  Obviously, being the head of a Jewish day school, I only have geniuses who were reading in their cribs, doing calculus in preschool, and who are today solving the world’s greatest mysteries and challenges as pre-pubescent Einsteins.

The fact is that even with tongue-in-cheek humor I have witnessed great attempts by education policymakers to suck the creativity and innovation right out of our children while creating expectations for achieving a mythical “perfection” through high-stakes assessments.  I’m not exactly sure when “striving for perfection” became “being perfect” but I am very confident that this expectation is a strong reason innovation (read: risk-taking) has slowly disappeared from our children’s behaviors for fear of potential failure
                                                                                                                                                         
Woody Allen said it best “If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.”  (And he knows something or two about failing).  As a head of school I am always trying to help put things into perspective, whether it’s for our students, staff and faculty, or parents and broader community, nothing does the job better than talking about a child learning to walk:

The build-up to those first few steps, the encouragement, support and even outright cheering when a toddler stands up is at times overwhelming.  Then a stride across the room comes and the audience erupts!  From there a few setbacks (thank G-d for well-padded diapers) but the encouragement continues; the support network stands firm (pun intended).  And eventually, after who knows how many attempts, failure turns into success!!!

So when does it change?  I dare say that in the world of Jewish education we must ensure that it never does.  In our school, the commitment to the Invention Convention over the last two years has been fraught with parental push-back.  “It’s too hard for my child to come up with something original” is the most common criticism.  “My child can’t come up with any ‘problems’ or ‘challenges’ to be solved” is another frequently used critique.  Nonetheless, when I have the opportunity to walk around our museum of innovative products and creations, as I did this morning, there is no doubt that we are well on our way to readdressing this critical commodity.

When I was a child, my mother (a former religious school teacher) used to say that the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament was that the Torah had characters who were imperfect and “real” human beings.  They might have had Divine relationships that we only wish we could have today, but our ancestors were real, they made mistakes, and they certainly failed in a varied multitude of ways. 

Today, I ask you all out there, what are we doing to emulate this critical characteristic of our ancestors?  Where has all the imperfection gone?  And where is our support and recognition that failing is not a badge of dishonor, rather it is a symbol of one’s pursuit for success?