Embrace Mistakes! Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

As the principal or assistant principal, you are the pacesetter.  You set the tone for your teachers and staff who in turn spread your attitude to the students.

Here’s something that is often a defining attribute of a school:

How is failure viewed at your school?

Accountability systems for schools have recently been revised to feature, at least in part, growth models.  Growth is about progress; failure is a necessary step towards progress; perfection, or at least the insistence on perfection as the metric, is an enemy of progress.

expert-was-once-a-beginnerHow you answer that essential question, (How is failure viewed at your school?) has implications in many areas.  Here are three:

  1.  Assessment/Grading:  If you are truly focused on progress and growth, you acknowledge that students don’t begin their learning as experts.  That understanding  leads to a constructive approach towards learning.  If you’re there in your approach to school, you have to begin to explore what grades really mean and if you are assessing progress for growth or grading students for compliance.  There’s a big difference.  If our ultimate goal is for students to master the standards, is it essential they all do so on the same days?  We know that if learning is constant, then time has to be variable.  Instead, we traditionally operate schools in reverse, where we hold time constant.  If we don’t recognize within that approach that learning will be variable, perhaps we are the ones who need schooling! Grading should be aligned to learning by assessing mastery of application of standards and reporting progress and completion.  Big topic, more another time, but fundamentally woven into the attitude your school has regarding the place of failure.
  2. Innovation:  Innovative schools regard failure as an important and expected step towards excellence.  Curiosity is encouraged, fear of failing is discouraged. Everywhere I visit speaks of innovation, but compliance cultures are rare to truly innovate, and an uptight, fearful culture doesn’t breed creativity.  Our nature is to avoid being wrong and being called down; teachers and students alike often refrain from trying something new if they believe that the risk of reprisals is too high if it doesn’t work at first.  If you want to be a school of innovation, your people, from top to bottom, have to know that it’s okay to work through the kinks to get something right, that they are encouraged to take the time to get it right.
  3. Stress:  Here’s something our data is telling us, about schools all across the nation:  there is more stress than ever before.  Students are more stressed; teachers are more stressed; administrators can’t show it, but they’re stressed too!  Part of this stress may be from outside sources and inherent to the job at hand, but some of the stress we’re dealing with has come from our attitude about our work.  We are learning organizations; we need to stress the process, not process the stress!  If we adhere to the learning process, which is based on valuing people and meeting their individual needs, we will find ourselves more willing to focus on growth over time.  I know that everyone faces statewide testing programs that create a deadline that makes teachers, students, and administrators feel like we have to be in a hurry.  The problem with that approach is that being in a hurry doesn’t work for everybody and more often generates stress that impedes progress.  If we can take a healthy approach to failure, understanding its role in growth and progress, we can skip the stress and drama and what comes with it and move forward on our journey to success.

Please don’t misread the notion of embracing failure with one of lower expectations.  This is of no value either.  One of your primary jobs as the leader of a school is to help get and keep things in balance.  Balancing the need of adequate time for learning with the goal of growth, progress, and excellence is a learning opportunity for you and an area in which you can lead your school to success.  Just don’t expect to get it perfect from the beginning.



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