This much I know about…failure

I have been a teacher of English for 24 years and, at the age of 48, this much I know about failure (well, everyone else is writing about it…).

If you commit to something completely you almost certainly commit yourself to experiencing a degree of failure. On a profound level, any relationship you have will end, no matter how committed, because of the single certainty of the human condition. Students who commit to improving their performance at school will inevitably fail the majority of the time; it feels to me that too many learn that in order to avoid failure at school, just refuse to commit.

I learnt most about failure through sport. I committed to golf when I was ten years old. I played every day in the summer holidays and practised seven hours a day until my hands bled. I gave up studying at sixteen to try to make it in golf professionally. In eight years I won just three significant tournaments – not a great return for the solitary days spent hitting shot after shot into empty skies. What I learnt about failure, however, was invaluable.

On a sunny summer’s day I would spend a full twelve hours on the nine hole putting green. I would try to complete the course in nine single putts; if I missed one, I would go back to the first hole and begin again. I failed every time; I never once achieved my goal, but I was – and still am – a great putter!

Doug Sanders’ missed putt on the 18th green at St Andrew’s that cost him the 1970 Open was a failure in its purest form (see Meltdown number 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3_kLTQuopg) There he was, at the home of golf, with a two-footer to win the world’s oldest and greatest tournament, and he missed. He even leant forward to pick the ball out of the hole, just as it slid wide. He went into a play-off with Jack Nicklaus, which he lost, and after that he slid into relative obscurity. When I last read an interview with him he said he now only thought about that missed putt every 30 minutes or so. His life became defined by a moment of failure. Over the years I have come to appreciate more acutely the aching regret Sanders must feel; we have all, some time, some place, missed our own two-footer for The Open.

I felt so rubbish when I failed my driving test! I think experiencing failure helps you become a better teacher. I’ve always wanted to be Joe Strummer. When I was 44 I eventually bought a guitar but over the last four years I have failed to learn how to play the thing and am stuck solidly at Yankee Doodle Dandy. When I pick up the guitar my sense of failure must be similar to that felt by some of my less literate students for five one hour lessons a day, every school day of their lives.

Teachers’ words can hurt. I can still remember Glyn Rees, my Geography teacher in the third year, reading out the end of year exam results thus: “Tomsett, 22%………no 65% really!” No surprise I chose History in my options.

Use all the emotional intelligence you can muster to imagine how your words and actions impact upon students. I inadvertently upset a Year 13 student in my lesson last week. I was modelling how to write an opening paragraph to a Theory of Knowledge essay and used her first draft as a starting point as it was the best in the class; however, I used it without warning. It went well at first but the emotional-tipping point came when I said we have an outbreak of Comma-itis here. Cue emotional meltdown.

Lots of people are writing about the benefits of failure. Matthew Syed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XUf8ST0W9w&feature=relmfu), Carol Dweck (http://www.scribd.com/doc/94693158/NAIS-Brainology-Transforming-Students-Motivation-to-Learn), Angela Duckworth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaeFnxSfSC4) and many others have all made significant contributions to the debate. I would recommend Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote (to positive thinking) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Antidote-Happiness-Positive-Thinking/dp/1847678645/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1353189901&sr=8-2). Burkeman is witty and challenging in equal measure; one of his closest friends teaches at Huntington and we are in the very early stages of planning a scheme of learning on How to be Happy, with a significant section on the fruits of failure!

The Michael Jordan Nike Failure advert is quite brilliant! If you haven’t seen it, take a peek (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHVLu1Kn8JQ). And then, of course, there’s the moment when his response to failure is rewarded when it matters most: his last ever shot for the Chicago Bulls to win the NBA Championship Finals in 1998 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdPQ3QxDZ1s.

Three years ago I reached the nadir of my professional life. The August rain was pounding on the roof as I sat in my car with the GCSE results on my lap having just calculated that our headline figure was two points worse than the previous year after all that work; beset with a sense of failure, I wept openly. I have no nugget of wisdom derived from that moment of failure. I ’phoned my wife, went home to see my boys and began a painstaking post-mortem to establish what went wrong. We decided that less is more and three years on we are ten points better than that wholly desperate moment. Looking back now my favourite Hamlet mantra only just holds true – I still have to stop myself thinking it was a bad experience!

When boys show a devil-may-care attitude to failure it is a show of bravado masking their dismay at not having the skills required to learn, the key skill being literacy. When girls fail it is often because they have lost the confidence to try, and in their world it is better not to commit than commit and fail.

Guy Claxton got it right when he said at the recent IOE London Festival of Education, We need to teach our students how to flounder intelligently, or, as Piaget said, they need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. It is as simple and as complex as that.

Churchill was always good for an apposite quotation: Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

In 1990 Roland S Barth wrote a book called Improving Schools from Within (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Improving-Schools-within-Principals-Jossey-Bass/dp/155542368X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353190054&sr=8-1). It is the book which most influenced my early career and, for me, no publication since has quite eclipsed its wisdom. In the book he shows how communication, collegiality, and risk taking among adults in the schoolhouse can create an atmosphere of learning and leadership for all. Do whatever you can to get your hands on a copy!

If we are going to be able to develop a healthy response to failure in our students we have to work hardest on creating a school culture where learning from failure is woven into everyday life. Since 1992 I have had pinned on my wall Barth’s A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture; almost everything I have done as a school leader over the past two decades has been directed towards realising the vision articulated by Barth. Profound school improvement takes time and is not diverted by failure en route.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to This much I know about…failure

  1. Pingback: A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture – Roland S Barth | Monkeymagic

  2. Pingback: This much I know about…failure | Changing Discourse | Scoop.it

  3. behrfacts says:

    What an amazing post! Would love to know more about your planned course about happiness. It is certainly connected to philosophy and risk, but also to the social skills that we all need to be a constructive part of a community. That is what identifies humans and other group-minded animals.

  4. Thank you for this excellent post – I will use it in discussions with schools engaging with the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award. Having myself failed pretty spectacularly at secondary school (their fault) and university (my fault) I have discovered how incredibly long it can take to get to the point where you start to imagine you can succeed again. And until you can imagine succeeding you won’t be able to concentrate properly on the task in order to succeed.
    Schools should be tackling head-on the issue of failure as the route to success, to help children to appreciate it is normal and to develop strategies for dealing with it.

  5. Joanne Olsen says:

    Great blog as ever. If you don’t try you cannot fail, but you also cannot succeed. Sometimes adults are not keen on talking about their failure throughout life, but we must do to show our young people that everyone does fail throughout their life.
    Keep up the good work.

  6. Christine says:

    Brilliant. Excellent read.

  7. Pingback: This much I know about…failure « Simon Smith

  8. Simon Smith says:

    Great Blog – hope you don’t mind, I have linked to it on my own!

  9. Pingback: Slaying Education’s Elephants #3: Foie Gras Education and the Folly of Failure | pedagog in the machine

  10. Excellent site you have here but I was curious about if
    you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics talked
    about here? I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get feed-back from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

    • johntomsett says:

      The Twitter community around people like @headguruteacher is excellent.

      • There’s a nice example of not letting failure get you down. That spam comment must have been sent to hundreds of blogs and ended up in their spam folder each time. Looks like he succeeded eventually :)
        Thanks for the post – I have been working on changing students’ mindsets for a few years now, with limited success. Seems like students spend most of their lives learning that school is about trying to get the one right answer, then they come to my class and hear a different message. It can’t be easy to live with two conflicting sets of instructions.

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