Professional Development: Finding Excellence Through Failure


by Wade Sutton

Protect my ability to fail and you give me the opportunity for excellence. Without failure we cannot improve. Unfortunately, the opposite sentiment currently defines policy surrounding the professional development of educators. My solution is simple: do not guarantee success. Make us earn it.

The first time I tried to walk, I fell. My first poems were terrible. The first time I balanced my checkbook, my numbers were wrong. I repeated Spanish three times until I finally passed. I was allowed to fail. I was expected to try again. This is natural.

In contrast, consider the hours spent gaining Continuing Education Units for relicensure. Is it possible to be passive? The consistent answer is “yes.” Teachers jump through hoops for licensure every five years knowing they have a golden safety net beneath them. We can simply put in our time and there is no chance to fail, but as C. S. Lewis wrote, “One fails toward success.” Protecting ourselves from failure may result in the mediocrity we see entering our profession.

The possibility of failure leads to excellence. National Board Certification has a built-in retake option for those who score below 2.75. Universities prescribe grades and the rate at which education candidates do not pass their exams is increasing. I think this is good news because it exposes a deeply-rooted problem. Try googling “fail toward success”, and you will find that the option to fail is an integral part of successful business models. Failure is a part of the real world which is where the best education occurs. That is where we learn.

Do local school policies on professional development have high standards for passing grades for their yearly offerings? Not likely. When I sign up for a conference I automatically receive the credits just for attendance. No chance for failure, less chance for excellence.

In education, just doing the work should not lead to passing. The quality of the work should. When I grade essays, I find the exemplar papers with which to compare all others. Not everyone gets an “A”, and this bothers many parents and students unless they have been attending our school for a few years. Trying does not mean passing; performing and meeting the standard leads to success. Our policies on professional development ought to mirror this. As I tell my students, “‘F’ is for just effort. You are capable of reaching excellence.”

I suppose retreating from holding high standards for our students runs in our culture. Recent news stories in Virginia, New York, and Denver show us how far from the mark we can fall. Retaining students who fail is rare; often they can slip into the next grade with minimal accountability to a high standard. We have even begun to couch this practice with the popular term “growth mindset” because everyone can become better, right? The truth is that we should not take away failure. Our policy should change, beginning with teachers.

I don’t know how to solve this issue, because it is so integrated into our world. As a new school year begins, perhaps taking on the challenge of accepting failure in our classrooms and expecting more of families is the resolution we need to have a positive year. What more can we do? The way we finance districts based on the lack of failure is certainly a philosophical and policy problem which is too large to tackle. But I believe a simple shift in policy demanded by educators and instituted by administration can help. For every training or conference, require a studied reflection and documented application that is graded on a rubric. Build in a retake schedule. Do not bend. Do not make exceptions. Allow failure so that we can have excellence.  With time, I am hopeful that the culture of success will return to the fundamental principle that we learn from failure.

Wade SuttonWade Sutton teaches Middle School English in the School of Logic at Eagle Ridge Academy in Eden Prairie, Mn. Prior to this he taught 7-12 grade at a rural school in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

Spread the word. Share this post!

Leave a comment