Failing… Together

The last third or so of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure takes readers to a place even more intimidating than the dishes in the kitchen sink or the youth soccer pitch; it’s in this meaty final stage of the book that she brings us to …school.

As a principal, and particularly as the principal of a school with sixth through twelfth grade students, I appreciated that while Lahey found some universality in the school experience, she divided her discussion in half, spending time with both middle school and high school (and beyond). While they’re distinctions we minimize here at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy (where we’re a seven year program, like Hogwarts) the reality of the differences between eleven and twelve year olds and seventeen and eighteen year old students is real, and speaking to these differences allows for a clarity that I think will serve us well when we gather for our ACMA Book Club on December 4th to talk about Lahey’s book.

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One of these ideas that I’m likely to read verbatim when we meet comes from Lahey’s perspective as a middle school teacher. She writes:

Here’s the ugly and wonderful truth about middle school: it’s a setup. Middle school teachers ask students to succeed at tasks that their half-cooked, adolescent brains are not yet able to master, and therefore, failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when.”

Lahey breaks down this contention with the more reassuring perspective that while the challenges and responsibilities students face in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade push them to their limits (and beyond), eventually they do get it and the result of this newfound control over their own lives can be amazing. “So fear not,” she writes. “Failure is a fact of life in middle school, so embrace it. Everyone is doing it, even the cool kids. Even the kids who look as though they have it all figured out. …jump in and take advantage of all those learning experiences in the guise of everyday failures, littering the middle school landscape.”

Beyond acknowledging the “landscape” of positive failure, Lahey offers suggestions for both parents and educators on how best to support students through these years of challenge and change. From organization to time management, from schedules to a sense of humor, she lays out practical and possible supports for anyone living and working with these baby giraffes.

Lahey also acknowledges that things shift around ninth grade, speeding up as students make a running start to break out of their parents’ orbit.

That Lahey calls high school students “emerging adults” helps to underscore the message of the book and the importance of supporting our students as they move beyond high school and into adult lives of their own. These are the years students have more safety and support in which to make mistakes. So often as a principal I’ve had conversations with kids and parents about the difference between the choice they made as a sophomore or junior and what that same choice would look like if they were over eighteen. Our society is more forgiving of minors and our school system, at its best, is a place where support and education is the priority over punishment.

Lahey takes this farther, discussing the importance of parents shifting into a new role for their high school aged students. Quoting a high school teacher and administrator, she writes:

When parents take the supporting role, but balance it with the ability (and it is a learned skill for parents) to step aside and watch and welcome and expect the student to choose his/her way, students seem to make the better choices relatively quickly  if not automatically. Students want to do well. They want to make the right choice … but they also want to have the ability to choose.”

What struck me, in addition to the truth I see in the statement, is the parenthetical reality that is so seldom explicitly stated: the ability to step aside and watch “is a learned skill.” How, the principal I am asks, do we do this? If we see this patient parental support as learned behavior, what are we doing to help parents (and students) learn and value it?

It’s a point I look forward to asking the parents and students at our book club about.

One of the parts of The Gift of Failure that I could see being tough to talk about is Lahey’s systematic dissection of grade levels nine through twelve. In this section she takes on the sacrosanct idea of an achievement laden college resume. Quoting a college president she writes:

…the expensive trips to far-flung poverty? Fifty-two activities scattered across the seven days of the week? Honestly. It doesn’t help. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.”

Boom.

But true to form, Lahey doesn’t abandon her readers at the revelation; she spends time unpacking opportunities for students to build their independence and demonstrate the “autonomy and motivation” that college president was talking about.

…and she throws in a marvelous checklist for parents of new college students.

But that checklist wouldn’t feel significant if it wasn’t so necessary. Backing up a step, Lahey ends the book with a section devoted to “succeeding at school.” Wisely beginning the section with a brief history lesson about home and school relationships from the Colonial era through the choppy waters of the seventies and eighties, and the introduction of new measurements and standards of the current day, Lahey educates before moving into an informed discussion of positive and proactive steps parents might take to promote parent-teacher partnerships that benefit students. A partial list directed toward parents includes:

  • SHOW UP AT SCHOOL WITH AN ATTITUDE OF OPTIMISM AND TRUST
  • BE FRIENDLY AND POLITE
  • LET TEACHERS KNOW ABOUT BIG EVENTS UNFOLDING AT HOME
  • BEGIN WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN COMMON: THE STUDENT
  • GIVE YOUR CHILD A VOICE
  • IF YOU ARE CONCERNED WITH A TEACHER’S ACTIONS, TALK TO THAT TEACHER

For each of these, as well as the others on the list, I see corollaries for teachers, counselors and administrators like me. For all of us, the last item on the list holds a special truth we’re wise not to ignore: SUPPORT THE STUDENT-TEACHER PARTNERSHIP, EVEN WHEN IT’S CHALLENGING.

As a principal I’d add: especially when it’s challenging.

Lahey ends the book with frank and honest discussions of homework and grades, the twin bugbears of education, and topics I’m sure will support rich discussions on Monday night. In her final pages she turns back to the tough but true message of The Gift of Failure:

If the unpredictability of our own journey is frustrating, the suspense that parents experience as we watch our children’s stories unfold is downright unbearable. Because we can’t possibly know how their stories will end, their failures are the more acute, immediate, and treacherous; more Shakespearean tragedy than quaint anecdote.”

How can we help our kids, and each other, navigate these uncertain and stressful times? Together.

For those interested in being a part of that “together” here at ACMA, our Arts & Communication Magnet Academy Book Club will meet on Monday, December 4th from 6:30 to 8:00 pm in ACMA’s library.

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