“Imagine forgiving yourself completely. The goals you didn’t reach. The mistakes you made. Instead of locking those flaws inside to define and repeat yourself, imagine letting your past float through your present and away like air through a window, freshening a room. Imagine that.” Matt Haig posted this on Facebook on 25th November 2020, prompting a flood of replies from readers. Many clearly found it liberating; after all, you cannot be at the frontier in any profession if mistakes aren’t a regular feature of life, can you? And to be freed from guilt, or that excessively self-critical inner voice, is liberating indeed.
When we consider that this time last year there was no hint of what was ahead of us, and the rapid pace of change demanded of us, the entire profession might usefully look back and reflect on its monumental success. In the face of the most intense demands and, yes, stress, teaching has adapted, innovated, and survived. Thrived, even.
It’s always worth considering what role failure plays in our careers, particularly if in an environment that is cautious about change and risk. And yet trying something new, and subsequently failing to achieve the intended outcomes is undoubtedly a part of our future success. It is on the path towards it. There is rich growth to be had from failure, if we are flexible and adaptable enough to allow it.
Thinking of the not too distant future, when the current pressures of a global pandemic will, we hope, have abated to some extent, here are five ways to turn failures into valuable lessons in life:
Gather your thoughts after a perceived failure. What went right? What went wrong? What can feed into future strategies? How well matched was your aim to your actions? How well timed was your innovation? Did you declare defeat too soon? Too late? What consequences are you facing now? What attitude is applied to failure analysis? How compassionate is the context you are working in?
Consider your approach to change. Consider the wider approach to change that you perceive in your institution. Are there any blocks to the progress that your innovation might have led to that contributed to it not working as well as intended? How are priorities defined?
Make sure ideas are well filtered before implementation. Consider the processes that potential innovations go through before they are introduced. Is there a robust filtering system in place based on peer review? If you are implementing experimental ideas on an individual basis, does your school have a system of critical friends to bounce ideas off? There is never any guarantee of success, especially when working with human beings, so generating ideas within a framework in which failure is a real and valid potential, is important. If failure is not entertained in any way, perhaps your filters are too stringent?
Go steady on the pace of change and innovation. This year has demanded an unusual pace in many ways, but the culture in our schools under normal circumstances needs to be able to support a steady cycle of innovation and reflection, innovation and reflection.
Forgive yourself – that’s the way to glean the maximum possible from the experience of trying something that doesn’t quite get the levels of success you were expecting or hoping for. A measure of your self-forgiveness might be the degree to which you are willing to explore the emotionally unpleasant aspects of failure in order to move forwards with self-esteem, motivation and self-worth intact. It’s not the end of the road. It is part and parcel of the road ahead.
There is wisdom in making mistakes. Progress comes from mistakes. Development comes from mistakes. Knowing better what might work next time comes from making mistakes. If 2021 is about anything other than keeping our heads above water, let it be about being OK with trying new strategies where indicated, and using our “failures” to inspire our resilience and future successes. Let it be about remembering our passion for our mission. As Matt Haig says, “Imagine forgiving yourself completely. The goals you didn’t reach. The mistakes you made.” Imagine that!
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.