It was my first time rock climbing. I dipped into my chalk bag to help my already sweaty hands grip onto the colorful climbing holds. The holds felt hard and textured so they were easy to grip. Some were long and wide, making it easier to rest my feet while I took large steps up the beginner’s climbing wall. I had climbed up pretty high, and I was feeling confident about it. Until I looked down.
My stomach dropped. The muscles in my hands cramped up; I tensed up and I was immediately paralyzed by the fear of falling. My sister, who had invited me, must’ve seen the panic in my eyes because she swung over to me and gave me what I thought was the worst advice at the moment. “Let go,” she said. That was a no for me. Thank you very much. “If you let go, you will see what it feels like to fall. And you won’t be scared to fall again,” she continued. My fingers ached. I gave in and let go.
In a weird way, falling comforted me. That was the worst that could happen if I accidentally slipped. And plenty of that followed.
Creating the Conditions to Try
Does failing feel like falling for students? Even though some would like to take risks, students are afraid to fail. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, failing has such a negative connotation in schools and our society. No one wants to look like a fool in a new workout class, or sound untalented in the church choir. People convince themselves to stick to what they know.
But what if we created opportunities to fail and praised students for trying? Sara Blakely, the billionaire inventor of Spanx, said that her dad would encourage her and her brother to take risks and welcome failure. During dinner, they would discuss how they had failed. About this experience, she said, “What it did was reframe my definition of failure. Failure became not trying, versus the outcome.”
For a climbing amateur, climbing without a rope might be too risky, but increasing the climb’s grade will challenge the climber to improve their ability. In the same way, we should push our students within their Zone of Proximal Development so their successes outweigh their failures. I mean to say that we need to normalize failure, and help students embrace it and reflect upon it. For example, Blakely’s father would also encourage her to “write down where the hidden gifts were and what [she] got out of it.”
Failure Fridays in the Classroom
I helped my eleventh graders welcome failure by starting Failure Fridays. It started off as mundane risks like asking out a boy or girl that they thought was way out of their league, and then reporting to the class on how that went. But soon, Failure Friday bled into the academics. I pushed them to read a book they had never read before for their Book Talks. Then to write about a different topic they had never written about. And they did it. Sharing our failures helped build classroom culture and stronger relationships.
However, not all students failed after trying something on the first try. One student even got a prom date from the experience. He thought his crush would never go for it, but he asked her for the sake of Failure Friday. He was surprised when she actually said yes. This was a fun, yet powerful example of how students sometimes set their own limits.
We explicitly practiced failure because failure paired with reflection made my students more resilient. In fact, when trying something new, I would say, “Try your best, and if you get it wrong, then awesome! That means there is a reason for my job. I get to teach you something new,” and, “Get it wrong right now, so we don’t get it wrong on the test.” I would also share my own failures with them about how the Zumba instructor called me to the front of the class, and I totally butchered the dance. Salsa is not my strength!
This experience taught students to laugh at themselves and reflect on why they failed and what they could do to be successful at it next time. If nothing else, this lesson gave students the social-emotional strength to avoid being paralyzed by the fear of falling.