Failure as Success

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

The hardest balance to strike in a classroom is that special zone where a child learns from a failed attempt  . . . and doesn’t take the failure as a measure of his self worth!  You may wonder where any of us would get the idea that failing at a task has anything whatsoever to do with self worth, yet I’m sure you will agree that this notion is often lurking in the backs of our minds.  And where indeed does it originate?

We hear a great deal about conditional and unconditional love.  The simple model of conditional love states that “when you perform up to my expectations, you are loved.”  Men are frequently accused of loving their offspring in this fashion.  Unconditional love, on the other hand, is self-explanatory.  That model has nothing to do with performance.  It’s fairly easy to argue that there is no love at all if it is not unconditional.  But in any event, I think the source of the failure and self worth issue can be found in this topic.

If a child receives a B+ on a spelling test, it is probably not displayed proudly on the kitchen refrigerator.  An A+ test might receive such an honor, but not the B.  On the other hand a truly dreadful piece of art created by a third grader might be on display in the home for years.  Even today there is such an abomination (a dreadful and garish clay dish sitting on a lace doily) gracing my departed mother’s bureau at our family home.  She treasured it for 48 years as her son’s artwork.

When we look at grades, or a play, or a sporting event, or a clay dish, we are not wholly objective.  The problem lies in how we communicate both our objectivity and our subjectivity to the performer.  The wise teacher (and the wise parent!) will take heed of this, making it a habitual part of interacting with children.

Many years ago I saw the perfect report card.  No one would support such a thing today because we are so frantic about measuring everything.  Besides, it was a Kindergarten report card and it only had three possible “grades”.  Those were A or S or N.  You are probably guessing that these stood for something like Excellent and Satisfactory and Not-So-Good.  In fact the letters stood for “Always” and “Sometimes” and “Not Yet.”

I pretty sure no one felt that self worth was in jeopardy!

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN