The Virtues of Failure

Over this past weekend, I had the great privilege of taking a small group of students to compete in a Speech and Debate tournament. As a new coach, with a new program, and zero experience, I left the school parking lot early on Friday morning, students in-tow, fearful.

While I sat in the driver’s seat, with students falling asleep in the back, I was taken to a time in my past where the roles were reversed, and I became the young man, tired but unable to let myself sleep. I never gave much thought, during that time, of what was going on in the mind of my mentor and coach. I regret that now. She was an amazing woman who carried herself with dignity and poise. Much of who I am today, I owe to her.

Every competition, for every student, at 3:30am, she was there with a smile on her face and excitement in her eyes. I know now what must have been going on behind those eyes. I know that her thoughts were on us. After spending countless hours teaching and coaching and pushing us to perfect our craft, she was thinking about how we would do. Her mind was completely devoted to us. How would we do in our events? How would we react? If we failed, would it be okay? She was there at a moment’s notice when we felt we had failed. She was there to care for us if we actually had. She was there to tell us what we could do to be better and improve.

I know she had these thoughts, because sitting in that driver’s seat listening to the sound of sleep in the back seat I had these thoughts as well.

They have been practicing every day. They have been working really hard. They have dedicated countless hours to pushing themselves. I’ve watched them light up when what they have been working on clicks into place. I’ve seen them frustrated when nothing works out.

I can’t help but wonder: what if they fail? What if everything we have been working towards falls apart? What will I do if they feel defeated?

At the tournament, I sat alone, at a table in a crowded cafeteria, as all my students were competing. I nervously bit my nails and waited for them to return. One by one they made their way through the doors and over to where I was sitting, looks of desperation and fear plastered on their faces. They had failed. I don’t use that term lightly. They ALL failed. Miserably. They could hardly speak or show any feeling what so ever.

The rest of the tournament passed in a blur. I attempted to console and lighten their spirits, but they had been broken, and I feared the worse. My team that had put so much effort into this was going to quit. They were going to give up.

On the 3-hour drive home, I learned how wrong I was. As I feared that the failure would be too much for them to handle, they felt empowered. While I believed this was the end, they saw it as the beginning. The conversation turned from sadness at the loss to a plan for the future almost instantly. They began to talk about practicing more and working harder on specific things. They took their failures in stride, and rather than giving up, they pushed themselves even harder.

As I listened to my students discussing what needed to be done to prepare for the next tournament I was filled with pride. They had failed. I had failed. That didn’t mean it had to be the end. They didn’t even see it as a bad thing. They saw it as an opportunity to better themselves.

It occurred to me, while I was listening to them, that sometimes the best thing we can do as teachers is let students fail. While I do my best to help all of my students succeed, and I am not a proponent for setting anyone up for failure, so much can be learned from failure. In my own life, I know I would not be the person I am today if I didn’t fail at so many things.

Students need to fail. They need to fail on tests, projects, assignments, presentations, and anything else of any value that they put their hand to. When they fail, they need to know they have and not be afraid of it.

It is strange to me that I am only now coming to realize how true this is.

From failure comes motivation.

From failure comes an understanding.

Failure can redirect a person’s life for the better.

From now on, I am determined to let failure occur naturally and not stand in its way. I am determined to teach my students not to fear failure but to know how to deal with it when it comes.




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Bryce Brothers

Bryce Brothers

Flagstaff, Arizona

I teach 12th grade English full time as well as coach Speech and Debate in the Flagstaff Unified School District. Although I am only in my second year of teaching, I consistently participate in as many professional development opportunities as I can. I love all of my students and have the best job in the world. Teaching has not always been the direction I wanted to go with my life. In fact, I tried just about everything else I was physically able to do. Eventually, fate caught up with me and teaching became my passion and purpose the first time I stepped into an education course at NAU. In addition to being a full-time teacher, I am also a husband and father.

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