A teacher showed me a letter a parent had written to him about me:
"Alex came home saying that Mr. Barbercheck says he wants my kid to fail."
Another time, a student stopped me during one of my pep talks. His good listening was evident in his question, "So, you want us to fail?"
I must admit it caught me a little off guard, in both situations. I looked into what I was trying to say, and with a level of hesitation, but in complete sincerity, I replied, "Yes, yes I want you to fail."
Imagine that the Wright Brothers had a mentor evaluating their work as they took on the task of creating human flight. What if, upon their first attempt, this mentor walked up to their work and sabotaged it with a giant red "F" spray-painted on the nose of the plane.
A similar situation would have happened to Thomas Edison with his first prototype of a light bulb. And a major investor could have done the same: a bright red "F" on the hood of Henry Ford's first "Quadricycle."
What type of world would we live in if those events took place? How would that "historical fiction" genre of a movie end?
"Yes, yes, I do want you to fail," I replied to the student who skeptically asked the question, "So, you want us to fail?"
I went on to explain my upside-down grading scale concept, as inspired by a wise teacher colleague of mine, Mr. Ron Grosinger:
(Best performance to worst performance from top to bottom)
F- Failure: Reaching so far to the next level that failure is accepted, somewhat calculated for, and mostly inevitable. The experience is used to construct new knowledge.
D- Determined: Using existing knowledge and proceeding past the existing knowledge despite planned and unplanned setbacks and errors.
C- Cautious or Content: Remaining within comfort zone and unwilling to tread outside of comfort zone.
B- Boring: Your growth is minimal and your applied skills are repetitive. Existing knowledge is practiced but no new knowledge ever constructed.
A- Apathetic: You are present but not much more.
What if the word "quitting" had as much negative connotation associated with it as the shining red "F?" Would we perhaps have even more Thomas Edison's, Henry Ford's, and Wright Brothers' style of innovation?
If we did nothing else but delete the negative connotation associated with the letter grade "F" as a representation of failure, the world would be a drastically more innovative place.
"If you're not doing wrong, then you're not doing right," I told my class, to conclude my answer to my skeptical student. "If you're not doing wrong, then you're not doing right," I repeated. The heads began to tilt in contemplation. It was repeated one final time:
"If you're not doing wrong, then you're not doing right."
The words, right and wrong, are not utilized in a morality context. The context of right and wrong is addressed in the innovative sense. In regards to innovation, wrong must be done, if anything of true value is to be generated, to create, in the end, "right."
A stoic sense of accomplishment and a moment of being "in control" and "in the know" is instilled in popular trends like adult coloring books, and it is known by many as a sense of "flow" and has been shown to have many psychological benefits.
I don't want or mean to discredit outlets such as adult coloring books, or the phenomenon of flow with my next statements, but I do mean to caution the reader that that sort of comfort, unfortunately often sought out through less flow-inducing activities such as scrolling feeds and watching Netflix, are extremely comfortable endeavors and are distracting us from the pursuits that make us uncomfortable, pursuits that ultimately make us grow.
In terms of my students, my main goal is to alleviate fear of failure. Failure deserves respect, should be valued, and knowing how to fail, how to build crumple zones for failure is a skill.
... Let me pause for a minute and acknowledge that I do not mean to discredit failure's close relative, success.
You have an A student, and Mr. Barbercheck is over here just labeling that student as "Apathetic" by his grading scale. What the heck?!
No, I don't mean to do that, but I must say true success, game changing success, world-changing success, never just brought itself to fruition. Failure did.
To transition back to the classroom, my speech concludes, and kids get to work. There is an energy in the air that is reminiscent of Apollo 13-level problem solving... without the fear of lost life.
It's easy to get conflicted as a student shows me a piece of their work with flaws that stick out to me (and probably only me) like classic Volkswagen Beetles in a parking lot. Their name and my name is attached to this work.
"Maybe I should have done that one step for them?"
"Maybe I should have built a jig for that step to eliminate error?"
"What will parents and others think when they see these flaws?"
"Will they think less of my students, less of me?"
... I'm watching the same skeptical student who asked, "You want us to fail?" play a closely contested game of basketball against a rival school. The score is close, it's near the end of the final quarter, and it's down to free throws.
No coach gets to build a jig to help that free throw go in. No coach gets to shoot that free throw for them. No reasonable parent will hold it against the kid, or the coach for a missed free throw.
He doesn't just drop the ball in frustration and avoid eye contact as he huffs and puffs to the locker room in an accepted state of defeat, just because the possibility of failure is there.
He attempts, using all the skills he's learned and practiced.
Even with the possibility of failure.
I won't tell you whether he makes the shot or not. Whether he win the game or loses it. He takes the shot.
And, for that reason, everyone wins.
See the sequel to this piece here: Let's Give Away More Fs