Monday, May 30, 2011

Failure is an Option

A commercial from the 1990s displayed NBA legend Michael Jordan narrating all of his stats. But, instead of mentioning his NBA Championships, MVP Awards, Scoring Titles, and All-Star accolades, Jordan rattles off the number of shots he has missed, the number of games he has lost, the number of times he was trusted to take a game winning shot and missed and how failure was a neccesary ingredient in his success.

A very interesting and humbling perspective, even from Air Jordan himself. Somehow, and I know I sound incredibly old in saying this, I can not imagine many of today's starts declaring their shortcomings so openly. I'd even go so far as to say that even Nike no longer wants to tell any of its athletes who they should be or how they should behave...right?

Regardless of the current state of professional athletics (compared to the "Golden Age" of my childhood), Jordan's philosophy on the importance of failure resonated with me back as a teenager and remains with me today. As an educator, I see that a willingness to fail is a trait found in good learners. As the father of a 7 month old daughter, I see this philosophy lived out every day.

With eating under her belt, Elizabeth has shifted her focus to crawling. Able to creep, Elizabeth has not yet mastered the art of moving forward on all fours. Belly flops, rolls, tangled legs and incessant rocking followed by screams and wails have all been a part of her learning-how-to-crawl process. She's close, and will probably be crawling soon, but she probably just needs to fail a few more times so she can figure it out.

In addition to education taking time and effort (see the May 15 post), it also takes a willingness to fail, and in turn, failure itself. So, as educators, we must couple holding students accountable to high academic and moral statnds with loving support, nurturing and care. Right now, Elizabeth has a curiosity and love for exploration that is truly inspiring. She also has a determined spirit, and at this point a blind courage. Failure to eat, crawl or find her pacificer at night (even multiple pacifiers that have been strategically sprinkled in her crib) has not deterred her from trying.

Hopefully, this love for learning and her willingness to take risks will continue into toddler-hood, childhood, adolesence and beyond. Whether it is an unwavering self-confidence or an iron will, the older we get the less likely we are to tackle new challenges. For most of us, at some point in our lives we start to believe the lies of the one who wishes to keep us from becoming who God created us to be. You're not smart enough. You're not pretty/handsome enough. Savvy, strong, well-rounded, disciplined, healthy enough. You're too young. Too old. You're not good enough.

You are a sinner.

And so we stop trying. We stop challenging ourselves and growing. Maybe (and unfortunately) teachers, parents or even friends have reinforced these negative feelings. Maybe the pain of a particular failure, rejection or loss was too deep and the support needed to overcome it too shallow.

And in no longer trying we no longer fail and in turn gain control over the pain. We never have to worry about living down to the disappointment of missing a game winning shot if we always pass to another player, stay on the bench, watch it from the stands or critique it the next day at the water cooler. Playing it safe means we never fail.

It is encumbent upon Catholic educators to kindle the flame inherent in each of us for greatness. We must handle this light with extreme care and caution. The USCCB's Council for Catholic Education states (1998), "Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of man's most excellent and creative activities, for the teacher does not write on inanimate material but on the very spirits of human beings. The personal relations between teacher and student, therefore, assume an enormous importance."

Catholic educators, approach every day and every student knowing that you affect eternity.

The World already has too many wandering people with extinquished flames.

It has too many people so afraid of failing that they never even try.

It has too many would be saints wallowing in the mud figuring there's no point in getting up- they'll just fall again anyways.

What it needs is more failures, more people who realize that in order to be successful failure is an option.

It's just not the only option.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Get Dirty- You May Just Learn Something

Elizabeth is currently learning how to eat. Starting on her 6th month birthday with rice cereal, we spent the first week watching the food get shoved into her mouth only to have it ooze back out. More would end up on her face, hands, bib, and us than in her belly.

Sensing the need to introduce something more exotic with which to tantalize her taste buds, Emily and I turned to the delectable pea to improve Elizabeth's gastronomic chances. And, for the ensuing week we noticed a change- the color of the food on her face, hands, bib and us.

According to one of the many baby books lining our shelves and being read by my wife, it takes an average of 15 tries before an infant will truly like or dislike a certain food. So, on we pressed. Also recognizing that Elizabeth was fighting two battles, the taste and the technique, we were not discouraged by our collective lack of success. We were just green, literally and figuratively.

And then, after what was our 5th attempt at peas, Elizabeth grabbed the spoon, guided it into her mouth, took the peas off of said spoon, kept said peas in her mouth...and swallowed! Multiple times! Even though our success last Thursday was coupled with an icky face (it's incredible that they are innate) and a few small convulsions, Elizabeth ate just about the entire serving.

As I reflected on how proud I was, I also noticed two educational lessons emerge:
1. Education takes time.
2. Education takes effort.

First, Elizabeth didn't just start eating the first time we tried. Although she had expressed a sincere interest in all things related to food for the past three months, she had absolutely no idea what to do. Despite modeling the proper technique and eating both rice cereal and peas to show her how easily it can be accomplished, it took- and will continue to take- countless times for Elizabeth to actually perfect this technique. Her progression over the course of the past two weeks went something like this:
1. Food being forced into her open mouth and spilling back out.
2. Food being forced into her open mouth via spoon, yet ending up all over via her spitting it back out. Touching the food with her hands and moving her head and closing her mouth so as to stay cereal and pea-free.
3. Elizabeth grabbing for the spoon and guiding the contents all over the kitchen. Wrestling the spoon away from the hand feeding her and using the spoon as a conductor's baton.
4. Elizabeth guiding the spoon into her mouth and the swallowing!

Many, if not all, academic pursuits follow a similar pattern. We don't read sentences, paragraphs, books or even words before we recognize letters and know their many and varied sounds. We can't multiply until we can add. We don't run until we first walk. The expert in anything was once a beginner, and the progression from the former to the latter takes time.

It also takes effort. Education takes a willingness to roll up your sleeves (or don your bib) and get dirty. Education inherently involves mistakes, errors and failures. We test out new concepts, we compare them to ones we've already come to understand. When learning to ride a bike we fall and scrape our elbows and knees. When learning anything we suffer through (if we are to learn it) analogous bumps and bruises and pea-covered clothes. Education is messy and that's okay.

The writing process exemplifies these two educational ingredients: time and effort. Not only does the process and its steps require time, they also demand effort. Even as I've penned this (and yes, I still do some pre-writing planning and organization and even some first drafts by hand) I've made numerous revisions and edits, cross-outs and carrots. Prior to even putting an idea on paper, though, I engaged in thinking and planning. The finished product before you on the screen is similar to, but yet different from, what would be considered my first draft. If it weren't for the mess of my edits and rewrites this final draft would be littered with misspellings (my nimble fingers like to type the as "teh"), split infinitives and even run-on sentences and fragments (actually, I've used a good number of fragments in this blog- sorry). These edits and revisions take time and effort. Sometimes, especially if maximum time and effort are spent, the final draft is completely different than the first. Usually, if not always, this is a good thing and the finished product was time and energy well spent.

Recognizing these two essential components to education can also help us to recognize that learning perseverance and hard work is far more valuable than learning a particular skill or concept. In fact, learning how to roll-up your sleeves and buckle-up for a long, dirty haul can help us to learn just about anything...

...even how to get peas out of clothing.