The Blog

Learning to Fail

It is that time of year again -- the end of another college semester. Grades are in and well, the "whine season," as a fellow educator professed on his Facebook page, has begun.
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It is that time of year again -- the end of another college semester. Grades are in and well, the "whine season," as a fellow educator professed on his Facebook page, has begun. Students expecting a certain grade just for showing up, for being present, cataloguing the first letter of the or minus -- and then acting as though we are the Grinch that stole Christmas when they don't get it. Learning a diverse range of topics, critical-thinking, and real-life skills like resilience are not the gifts some students -- albeit the vocal minority -- want to receive during the whine season. To which I say, "you know nothing Jon Snow!"

These issues stem partly from expectations and partly from lack of resilience -- expectations that "working hard" automatically qualifies you to receive a certain grade, and the lack of confidence that you can struggle, fail, and recover and that it will be ok (...but it will be on my "permanent record!").

Expectations lead to a great many things, including entitlement. Case-in-point, a Miss Abby Fisher (#StayMadAbby) and her buddy Justice Anthony Scalia (the true Grinch who stole equality). Abby Fisher is a white girl who sued the University of Texas at Austin because she applied to that college and did not get accepted. She absurdly stated that she was denied admission because she is white and that "less qualified" black students got in -- even though her grades were not up to that college's admission standards. That story exemplifies the entitlement of kids these days. But not just kids, also their parents.

Expectations start at a very early age in this country with the trend in youth sports that "everyone wins". If you have a child who plays any type of sport you will know to what I am referring. Whether it's at my daughter's gymnastics meets, where every child is an all-around "champion" in every age category: "...and in #18th place overall..." or in little league baseball games where "everyone hits," there are expectations being built up in the foundation of our youth that they should always win and that we, the collective we, won't let them fail. But even singer and producer B.O.B knows that "Everybody ain't a number one draft pick," and really, that is a good thing because failure teaches hard-work and resilience, which are equally important lessons for youth to learn. As a person who teaches college-aged students, I believe this "everyone wins" motto is a bad habit to start and an even harder one to break. Students think that showing up and doing the minimum amount of work deserves a trophy. And when they don't get said trophy, and instead get constructive feedback, they are offended and appalled that their mediocrity, their showing up, was not accepted with open-arms. Hence, the whining. But as one university president put it recently: "This is not a day care. It's a university." Damn skippy!

Even more troubling is that this lack of resilience, this lack of confidence in their own abilities has been shown to influence anxiety and depression among adolescents. Though suicide is multifaceted, anxiety and depression can only add additional stress in a population where suicide is the leading cause of death. The university where I work has seen a high number of suicides in the last few years. It is an Ivy League university where expectations...they couldn't be higher. Students show up having been a big fish in a small pond and end up as a small fish in a very, very big pond, surrounded by a school of fish just like them. This can shake many students' confidence, especially if they haven't been taught resilience.

Extra curricular activities, and the classroom, should be the safe environments where kids are learning to lose gracefully, learning how to receive constructive feedback on what they can improve on to get better. Not everyone who does gymnastics will win a medal and not everyone who plays baseball will get a hit every time. As in life, not everyone will succeed at all things all the time. The whole point is to be ok with failure, learn how to get better, work hard, and grow as a person. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses (yes, you have weaknesses, we all do) and how you fit in as an individual, and as part of the whole, is more important than winning, and more important than letter grades. And, even more importantly, understanding these things will teach you the long-game, which is how to win in life. Another fellow educator stated it beautifully: "the everyone wins strategy springs from worthy intentions toward building self-esteem, but often blossoms into an unhealthy habit of expecting what one has not earned."

This is because losing is uncomfortable, and we don't want our kids to ever be uncomfortable, right? Even educators can fall down the rabbit hole of needing to make their students feel comforted. Just recently a private Quaker school outside of Philadelphia decided to drop The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you know, the Mark Twain classic, from their curriculum because the students were uncomfortable with the language. I was shocked and appalled when I first read about this. Friends on social media asked, "is this a joke?" thinking it was a farcical Onion article. But alas, it was not. The school in question is one of the better private schools in the Philadelphia area and instead of teaching their students about the history of the book and the meaning behind it, and having hard, but necessary conversations about race and how to handle issues that make us uncomfortable, they decided to pander to the students so that they would be comfortable. And here in lies yet another problem, all this teaches students is that they do not have to be uncomfortable and that they do not have to learn to deal with hard conversations and problems. Which then leads to students, who eventually turn into adults, who lack the ability to deal with unease, conflict, and differences, and who will not have the skills to work toward solutions to these uncomfortable problems.

Education is a right, but it can also be a privilege for some, because unfortunately not everyone has equal access to it. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to have it, you should embrace it, appreciate it, and take it all in, for all it's worth. As educators we are here to teach students and to prepare them for the real-world; that is our job. I have a kid and she can be all of these things collectively and individually, but it is my job as her parent to continually work with her on these issues, as it is for all parents. And it is my job as an educator to continually work with your kids, my students, on these issues. My hope is that in the safety of my classroom they will not only learn the topics in my class, but they will learn confidence and resilience, they will learn that failure is ok, and that even though grades are sometimes a necessary evil (this is another topic for another time) that it is not all about the grade. And if they learn that, then as an educator, and as a part of our collective society, I have succeeded...and so will they!


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.