Skip to content

Leah Thomas

One of the most popular speeches online in recent years is one given during a college commencement by author and icon J.K. Rowling. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the footage of this empowering speech shared, and I’ve watched it more than a handful of times over the past few years, especially during times when I’ve struggled professionally or creatively: when revisions have been difficult or when I’m not sure how to encourage a group of students. “The Fringe Benefits of Failure” has kept me pushing forward more than once.

In the classroom, it is essential that we understand that we will have days that go terribly wrong. There will be lessons, meticulously planned and laid out, that flop spectacularly within minutes. Students may not respond, or the objective may not be understood in the least despite determined attempts to convey meaning to a class. It is important to recognize when this is happening, but more importantly to look at the failures objectively. Could a simple change from small groups to larger ones have saved this project? Should students have been given more/less choice in this area?

Oftentimes we don’t start from scratch. Failure is vital to growth. Sometimes I think of plants that secure their roots to things long since decaying, things that failed to flourish, and how fertile that sort of ground can be. As analogies go, it’s imperfect, but then, so is this process of identifying our failures and looking at them without wincing.

This week a teacher and I are experimenting with an art that neither of us are 100% confident with in her classroom, but we’ve decided it’s worth a shot. No matter what happens, we’ll learn something about our students and ourselves.

There’s merit in talking about this process with students, too. “That lesson didn’t really work for me; did it work for you guys?” This sort of dialogue encourages revision. Sometimes a lesson can be salvaged in discussions like these, because even if the intended objectives are burning to ash, there’s another lesson here:

When we fall, we check to see what we tripped over. We move it aside if possible. And no matter what, we get back up again.