29 May 2011

When Failure Isn't an Option

I've been pondering the concept of "failure" recently. I'm trying to wrap my mind around what this means with certain projects or situations. Adam Savage from Mythbusters would say, "Failure is always an option." For the most part, I'm inclined to agree. Perhaps failure is not an option that is purposefully selected from a menu of outcomes, but the sum of either not choosing or making poor choices. There are situations where failure is stigmatized or dangerous, but there are also opportunities to learn that come from such experiences. Failure often implies blame or points to the lack of responsibility---not credit for trying...no kudos for any positive experiences along the way.

Much has been written about failing schools and teachers. Most of us have experience either as a failing student or working with one. Maybe you've had a failed marriage, event, or dream. And as my project from the last two years comes to a close at work, I realize that I have spent so much time focusing on what success will look like, that I haven't contemplated failure. It hasn't ever been an option. There is hubris in this, but I justify it by acknowledging that the work is really not mine. I have facilitated an amazing group of educators...I have worked with some outstanding teachers as they bravely attempted to field test new assessments with their students...I have collaborated with many different stakeholders and listened to numerous voices in order to push and pull the products into their final form. The work itself is not mine. My job was to tell others that I refused to let them fail and provide every ounce of support required.

I don't enjoy discussions about leadership. There is a haughty woman in my workplace who often begins her sentences with "As a leader, I..." or uses other words to consistently refer to her leadership style. Gag. The simple fact is that we have responsibilities. We were not chosen to "lead" by those who are impacted by the work. We are not better or smarter or more capable than anyone else---we just have a different role. Maybe it's a subtle difference, but I think it's an important one. She wants people to see her as the boss/leader. I want people to know that my role is serve them. She doesn't want to be seen as a failure. (Who does?) I don't want the teachers I work with to be viewed that way. But the attitude she displays is pervasive among ed policy types. I'm not sure how we overcome that and yet I see it as the single most important shift that needs to be made.

A few weeks ago, there was concern about a lack of response to a summer PD opportunity that we'd sent out. Nearly 60 districts had been invited. Two had responded. It would be easy enough to do nothing---send no reminders. Isn't that what we tell kids about how the "real" world works? You snooze, you lose. If you don't read the email, then you don't deserve an opportunity. I did my part just by sending it, right? But I really didn't want failure to be an option. The education of students---no matter how few in number---was at stake. So we made nearly 60 phone calls and while not everyone wanted to play, close to 1/3 of them did. They had misunderstood what was originally sent...or missed some important pieces...or were just overwhelmed by the volume of what they were dealing with. In taking some time to reach out on a personal level, we took responsibility and let them know we didn't want them to miss out on learning.

I can't---and won't---tell you that everything is perfect with my 2-year project as it is released to stand on its own two feet. Some components are outstanding. Others are in need of further refinement. Maybe failure will continue to be an option, but so is fighting for success.


Martha said...

I so appreciate your guidance on this project. We all grew in our knowledge and understanding. You did just as you described and every ounce of support was needed to help make this successful. The greatest outcome for me was not the assessments we "birthed" (which were major) but the benefits of learning with you as a model.

The Science Goddess said...

Thanks, Martha. I'm so glad that you have been with us every step of the way with this project. It really has been a fabulous opportunity to learn.