Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: Primed for Failure #SOL19 #TWTBlog
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Slice of Life: Primed for Failure #SOL19 #TWTBlog

Your kids are primed to deal with failure.  Just think about it, they have been facing the possibility of failure three to five times per game, three to four games per week, two seasons per year, for at least ten years.  Every time they get up to bat, it is just them and the risk of failure. And when they strike out, it is all eyes on them. 

As I listened to this coach, I play this recurring scene of failure in my mind.  I watch my son make his way back to the bench with dignity.  I see his teammates nod in understanding or offer a tap on his shoulder as he walks by.  I hear him cheering on the next batter before he even has his helmet and batting gloves off.  I realize I have been watching this for more than a decade and never really thought about what it was teaching him as a person.  In the moment I am so focused on his stance, timing and swing that I think I missed what this was doing for his character.

I am overwhelmed by the number of times per week my conversations with educators shift to the level anxiety they are seeing in their students.  When I am planning my time in classrooms, at least once a day I am told there are students I should not call on or work with due to the student’s anxiety.  I don’t recall this happening ten years ago or even five years ago to the same extent.  So, what is happening?  What is changing?  I thought it was due to the pressure and pace kids and parents are feeling in life, but now I am thinking about baseball. The pressure of all eyes on you and the risk of failing.  What gets these batters back up to face the same pressure again and again?  How has this pressure morphed into passion?  Why does this risk in baseball drive them to practice more rather than retreat?

I wonder if the difference is that in baseball, it is just part of the game.  Failure is expected and normalized.  There is a clear expectation of how you handle failure, including getting right back into the game.  The player is also in control in baseball.  The locus of control is on the batter – deciding when and how to swing.  Even if they strike out, they were in control.  Research suggests that situations that provide some internal locus of control may reduce anxiety. This could explain why errors drive a player to practice more – he believes he has the power to make change and is responsible for his behavior.  If you believe you have control in the situation you will try harder and stay in the game.

I can’t help but think we have something to learn from baseball in our schools.  How can we make errors, mistakes, and approximations just a part of how we do business?  How can we engage our students in the learning process, so they are inspired by their errors?  Can we find more opportunities to model taking risks and embracing the moments when it doesn’t work out?  If we give our students more ownership in their learning process would this shift how they feel about making errors or not understanding something at first?  It may have nothing to do with what I am observing in schools but given the level of anxiety kids are experiencing, it’s worth thinking about it.


Thank you, Betsy, Beth, Deb, Kathleen, Kelsey, Lanny, Melanie, and Stacey for this weekly forum from Two Writing Teachers. Check out the writers, readers, and teachers here.

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    Melanie Meehan
    Posted at 11:28h, 09 March Reply

    DIdn’t you write another really good post about baseball last year? I feel like you did… I have one that I haven’t written about the attention span it takes to both play and watch a game, as I’ve been hearing talk about shortening it. I think that’s just playing into people’s shortened attention spans and tendency to rush through life. It’s nine innings!!!

    Your connections, as always are spot on. Failure needs to be okay and people have to deal with their anxiety, not avoid them! (IMHO)

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    Lisa Corbett
    Posted at 11:30h, 09 March Reply

    I share your wonderings. It can’t be simply that some kids are more resilient than others. I was at a conference last year and went to a session led by a professor who specializes in adolescent mental health. I talked about how one of the problems is that we label everything as anxiety and then pathologize it. It’s normal to be worried and scared and nervous, but we give all of these a mental health label and that changes the way we deal with it. His thinking is that we need to help kids and teens realize that it’s totally normal to be nervous when a teacher calls on you, and that you need to just give an answer anyway, even if the answer is “I don’t know” and this is not any different than any other human in the world.

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    Glenda M. Funk
    Posted at 11:31h, 09 March Reply

    Baseball is both an individual and a team sport. That’s part of its allure. This juxtaposition of individual and team dynamic is often missing in classrooms. And sports don’t do a particularly good job transferring their benefits into classrooms. Like you, I think a lot about the new anxiety we see among students. They are more fragile, but they are also more compliant. I think that loss of ageny has something to do w/ their anxiety.

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    Jennifer Allen
    Posted at 11:35h, 09 March Reply

    Your post touched my heart. Couldn’t agree more. It is a sport where “ failure is expected and normalized”. Having spent hours watching my son on the field and engaged in lingering conversations long after practices and games I see how the experiences of the sport have transferred to embracing ownership to a journey of life long learning.

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    Lynne Dorfman
    Posted at 11:47h, 09 March Reply

    Clare, this piece is so wonderful – I just wish teachers everywhere could read and think about it. We have developed this culture in our schools of always being right – beginning with the kinds of questions we often ask (only one right answer as a response). It should be okay – even encouraged – to take risks and try new pathways. We are going to fail. And it is okay to fail because it means we are in the game and not playing it safe. Thank you for these very wise words – so insightful and presented with clarity and sincerity.

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    Diane Dougherty
    Posted at 12:52h, 09 March Reply

    George Carlin used to do a bit about baseball vs. football–I loved it. Baseball is a gentle game; you run “home”; you make “errors”: you are “safe.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s our current culture of winning at any cost that has contributed to the feelings of anxiety that children and adults suffer from. Your post gives us food for thought (as you usually do). Now, I’m off to the opera.

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    Peggy M Bruno
    Posted at 13:25h, 09 March Reply

    We had an amazing speaker at school this year, Lynn Lyons, who talked to all of us about anxiety. One of her big messages is ‘Don’t feed the anxiety.’ When we don’t call on students, we are feeding the anxiety. When we make kids avoid certain tasks, we feed it more.
    I think you are so right to use baseball as a connection. There is a statistic out there about MLB players having batting averages below 50% and they are fantastic players. I use that with my son ALL the time. We need to embrace failure and explain that it is not failure at all… it is learning.

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    Posted at 13:46h, 09 March Reply

    Great post! I like your comparison to baseball. The interesting thing is that students learn from the their errors. Yet, they are afraid to make errors. I worry about the anxiety piece because it also impacts the social piece. You even wrote that your son strikes out but is quick to cheer on the next batter (good for him). More kids need to be able to do that. Many times, we are asked to not call on the anxious student and be very careful who we pair him or her up with during group work. I’m not so sure that this is helping the student with anxiety, and more importantly, being social.

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    Karen Szymusiak
    Posted at 16:35h, 09 March Reply

    Clare, you have given us another window! You have given us another view. Something to think about as we work alongside students. I agree, so much has changed in the culture of school. But you give us another way of thinking about it. Thanks for your insights. They change us in positive ways.

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    Paula Bourque
    Posted at 18:21h, 09 March Reply

    Wow! This is so perceptive. I’ve always been in awe of my son’s calmness playing sports, he never seems to get rattled (though he says he does) and I believe it IS because he knows messing up, striking out, missing goals, dropping balls happens to everybody. It’s part of the game. But I don’t think he has that same attitude about school. Do any of us, really? I love this sooo much. Thanks for pushing my thinking.

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    Sherri Spelic
    Posted at 19:51h, 09 March Reply

    You offer some wise questions for us to think over and ask ourselves. I spend a lot of time in the physical domain with students (I’m a PE teacher) and part of my job is do what you suggest: normalize failure, encourage multiple attempts, find a reason that makes getting better worthwhile. It’s a work in progress for each student and the journey is the destination.

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    Posted at 21:12h, 09 March Reply

    Your baseball analogy has legs in my book. Our kids are being asked to be perfect and never fail. It’s heartbeeaking to watch. Failing builds character.

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    Susan M Kennedy
    Posted at 22:05h, 09 March Reply

    If we could just convince everyone teachers, students, and parents that we do have the control to withstand errors and missteps. I am thinking about this every day. If the adults in their life feel that errors and messy trials are failures, how can our students feel any other way?

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    Mandy Robek
    Posted at 03:55h, 10 March Reply

    Baseball, softball, and mistakes….our worlds weave a bit. I had a conversation tonight about the fear not only is her work good enough – is she good enough. We have to model mistakes and encourage mistakes…mistakes show strength and learning. Have you read, What Made Maddy Run? – insightful.

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    Posted at 13:18h, 10 March Reply

    There is so much wisdom in this post–and in the comments! I wonder also if players recover from failure in baseball in part because playing baseball, to begin with, is a choice. While being in school, for most, is not a choice. Also, everything you said above–expectation, sense of control, agency, all of it.

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    Amanda Potts
    Posted at 14:46h, 10 March Reply

    I really enjoy your musings here. Anxiety is rampant at my school, yet it is an arts magnet school where our students know – really know – that you have to practice to get better at things. I sometimes think about how we haven’t really built space for failure into our schools. We say that students can fail forward, but they know that they need excellent grades to get into excellent colleges to… do what? Hmm… thank you for writing about this. I think I may need a whole post to process my thoughts.

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