When I was young, I remember a teacher posed a question to the class during journal time: what would I do if I knew I could not fail? As a kid who always had plenty to write about, opinions to share and ideas to explore, I was shocked to find this question difficult to grapple with.
Looking back, I understand the driving force behind questions like that one. They’re designed to get kids to dream big, to imagine the biggest and best possible life for themselves. But in that frame, and the frame so many of us look through, failure is seen negatively, as something to avoid at all costs.
What would I do if I knew I could not fail? It’s not something that was ever discussed, but was an undercurrent that ran throughout my education. And while it was never outwardly stated — no one actually ever told me failure was bad — it just was. And I took that to heart.
Yet as I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my skin, comfortable in my sense of self-worth in that it’s not defined by outer achievements or grades, I’ve found the opposite to be true: failure is good. Failure is moving forward. Failure is trying things. Failure is experimenting. Failure is creating. Failure is learning. And failure is having fun. But this understanding of failure isn’t always easy to get to.
A few years ago, when I was teaching English 10-1, I created an abstract painting project where students were asked to read a story by Edgar Allan Poe then symbolically link elements like theme and tone to colours. The next day, they used paint rollers, paper towels and spray bottles to add paint to their canvases, strip it away in certain areas, add layers and create texture. But that type of project isn’t always easy to control, and there’s an unstated requirement to embrace ambiguity in the creative process.
Do you know which students spent the class laughing and chatting and enjoying the process? Those who, in my grade book, sat in the middle or near the bottom in terms of their average. And do you know who struggled the most to enjoy the process of creating art? The top three students in the class.
I watched them — kids who normally modelled equanimity — crack just a little. And I hope those small cracks are where the lighter side of failure started to seep in for them. My students who’d experienced failure in the past had already learned that it’s OK to fail, and, in this instance, that had real benefits.
There’s a good lesson here for us as educators: letting ourselves fail will allow us to learn and grow. So let’s change the narrative and ask a new question: What would I do if I knew there were lessons to be learned from failure? ❚
Kirsten Clark teaches in the human services department at Grande Prairie Regional College. She’s an associate member of the ATA.
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