Another child stands by me asking for my help, 5 seconds after the assignment has been given, “But I just don’t get it, Mrs. Ripp…” And I ask, because this is the 3rd time today that this child has come up to me immediately into work time, “Well, did you try?” She hasn’t, she is scared, and she admits it readily; “Please don’t circle it. Please don’t mark it wrong.” So upset, she raises her voice, pleads with me as if my circle matters. As if my marker holds the power. And I am stumped because how does a 5th grader get that scared of failing?
The truth is we are doing this to kids, we, this society in pursuit of perfection is doing it to our kids, because it was done to us as well. My daughter, who granted is only a wise two and a half year old is not afraid to fail. She gets frustrated sure, but she tries and tries and then sometimes tries again. We encourage this at home, urging her on, urging her to explore, to pick herself up. Again, again, again. Will she be the child in 8 years that stands petrified in front of me, asking for help because trying seems too daunting?
No teacher or parent tries to make their child afraid of failure. Yet our practices in schools support this notion that failure is the worst thing that can happen. An incorrect answer on a test pulls down your grade, you get enough, and you get an F for failure stamped across it for the world to see. That F means nothing valid, nothing worth reading here, nothing worth. Homework that is meant to be practice is tabulated, calculated, and spit out on our report cards. The child who gets the answer right is heralded as smart, the child who gets it wrong is told to keep trying and maybe they will get it someday.
How we run our classrooms directly affect how students feel about themselves. About how they feel about their own capabilities and their own intelligence. I fail all the time in front my kids, not on purpose, I try stuff and it doesn’t work and we talk about it. And yet, I am not perfect either. I catch myself in using practice problems as assessment, where really they should be viewed just as practice. I praise the kids that get it right and sometimes don’t praise the ones that kept persisting but never reach a correct answer. I don’t alway have enough time to explore all of the options so I guide the kids toward success knowing that some venues will lead them to failure. I shield them from it sometimes because I don’t want to crush their spirits.
We have to stand up for our children and we have to turn this notion around that failure is the worst thing that can happen. Failure is not the worst; not trying is. We have to keep our kids believing in themselves and having enough confidence to try something. If we don’t we are raising kids that follow all of the rules, that never take risks, that never discover something new. And that failure is too big to remedy.