Professional failures and what we can learn from them

This post is based on my presentation at #WomenEdWM in Coventry in March 2017. It was a great day – thanks Maria, Hannah and everyone involved in its organisation.  I love #WomenEd events – the energy, empathy and mutual support.

I taught for 30 years, holding seven different jobs across six schools.  I loved my career and found it rewarding, even joyful, especially headship, which offers the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of children, and adults, on an unprecedented scale.  But although I was appointed to seven jobs, I had 21 interviews, so was unsuccessful at interview twice as often as I was successful.  And those were just the interviews – I couldn’t count the number of other jobs I’d applied for.  So I’ve experienced failure many times, and I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from it.

If you think about the most powerful learning experience of your life, I suspect you may choose something where you failed, at least initially.  I’m convinced failure teaches us more than success.  Failure is one of those words which can make us uncomfortable, something we don’t really want to think about/face, something we don’t often specifically refer to in conversations with the pupils we teach, or with our children. But I don’t agree that “there is no such thing as failure – only deferred success”. I think we have to accept we don’t always succeed – even if we try try again. There are some things we don’t manage, despite our best efforts, and helping those we care about to cope with disappointment when they don’t achieve something they really want is an important part of what schools and parents do. It’s a key part of our education, and of growing up. In our professional roles, it’s something we need to support colleagues with, too.

Perfectionism, in young people and our colleagues, can be quite unhealthy, and striving for it can make us frustrated and miserable. Dealing with our limitations and imperfections is crucial – because we are all fallible. So a healthy sense of balance and the resilience to cope with the fact that they won’t succeed in absolutely everything they try to do in their lives is something we very much want for the young people we care about and those we work alongside. It’s natural to want to protect others and to shield them from pain/disappointment, when what we need to do is help them develop the tools they need to cope (without us one day).

So think about this: Failure lies not in falling down, but in not getting up.

Can we help others see failure as an inevitable step, an unavoidable step – actually a desirable step because of what it teaches us?  The danger is that it deters us forever. The hope is that it galvanizes us to learn from it, to grow as a result, and to do all we can to build on it and realise our hopes and dreams.

Don’t let failure stop you!

Photo: Mark Woodward Photography

This post was originally published on @staffrm earlier in the year

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