Category Archives: Failing

Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

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Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

Results Day Failure

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37 years ago today, or thereabouts I received my results for O levels and CSEs. I collected my envelopes and went away on my own, knowing that I wouldn’t have done very well. One of the worst things about failing is being around success, good to escape it. I looked at my results, I’d achieved an O level equivalent in Maths CSE, though not achieved it in O level… I passed O levels in Physics, Geography and English Lit and failed all the others… I had 4 O levels to my name.

Misery.

I retook English Language and History the following Autumn getting an A and a B respectively and I also reinforced my D in Art.

6 O levels to my name, in two sittings. No smiling pics of me clutching certificates…

By December I had left secondary school ‘by mutual consent’ and the chip on my shoulder has accompanied me ever since.

It wasn’t exams I failed, it was school. I didn’t apply myself and the school did little to truly educate me. The school worked for some, failed others, and for many in our cohort in 1979 there were worse stories than mine, that there were also better ones points at my responsibility to see myself through. Nowadays people call this needing grit, then I was simply lazy.

Looking back I can see what the school could have done for me that would have enabled me a fair shot at passing more than I did. For myself, I could have worked, I didn’t… I was extremely cynical about my school, the schooling and the whole point. Loud, argumentative, I was probably ‘difficult to teach’, and it is this that would prove in the years to come an asset when in a round about way I found myself back in the classroom as a teacher, vowing to be the teacher I needed when I was at school.

Those who celebrate failure as a precursor to success, seem to do it with alarming self-assuredness. Whether it be Jeremy Clarkson boasting about how he didn’t need his exams to become a rich celebrity or a teacher on twitter encouraging growth mindset, it seems as if failure is a virtue; it isn’t.

For all the pictures of successful students jumping into the air with big smiles on their faces, there are many more skulking away in the background, it might be because they were taught badly, have behavioural issues, are lazy, are not academic, whatever the reason, it still hurts.

“So what,” I’d say, “I don’t care…” and I got more and more bitter…

Exam results do matter but a good education matters more. No-one dragged me through exams, which I am thankful for, but on the way no-one really spotted I could be taught well either. What to do with the kids who won’t learn unless you teach them well?

Great teaching requires a teacher to instil discipline, focus, ensure great content, a curriculum that connects, the use of argument and challenging ideas, teachers should teach pupils how to write, speak and debate, and yes, they need to be passionate about what they are teaching too…

Ultimately  the responsibility for good results should lie with the child and not the school. Teachers should make sure their pupils know this and provide them with the knowledge and the tools by which children can ensure they do their best. If a child is dragged through tests and exams they will have no idea what real failure looks like until it hits them hard when they least expect it. If a child is let down by a school they will always have someone else to blame.

At least I expected to fail.

I still do; this is no bad thing, but it doesn’t ever feel like one step nearer to success. It won’t if I can still blame the school rather than thinking about my own responsibility towards my failure.