“Fail Forward” is a phrase currently ringing through the halls of my school district. We have a new superintendent who has publicly encouraged our staff to take risks, fail forward, and to just “press the button”– specifically when it comes to technology, but I think this message can also be applied more widely. He shared the exhortation to “fail forward” at our first administrator meeting of the year, as well as at the all-staff Opening Day Institute. It was exciting to hear this specific encouragement coming from a school leader. In my experience, most “opening day”/”first meeting of the year” types of speeches tend to be more inspirational than challenging. They often regale us with successes of the previous year, reminders of exciting events that will be occurring throughout the coming year, inspirational quotes and videos, cute student pictures, and motivational stories. I have been part of many schools and school districts (international private, Illinois public, elementary districts, and high schools), and most of these leaders opened with this type of positive messaging. Not to say that this year’s opening message was not positive, because it was. But it also offered up a challenge, and challenges often imply that something is not yet being done. Or at least not being done consistently. So it was exciting to hear someone at the top level challenge us to “fail forward” and to recognize the intrinsic value of being vulnerable in front of our students and one another.
Schools can be high pressure environments. Teachers and administrators feel responsible for preparing students for state and district testing, feel concern for students’ academic and social emotional needs, are anxious about our own evaluations and, let’s face it, can sometimes feel afraid of being judged by our peers. Teachers and administrators put in a lot of work to get to where we are, and most of us feel a sense of pride in our skills and experience. Often, we are known in our schools or districts for being especially competent in one thing or another, and the desire to preserve this reputation runs deep.
It can be hard, therefore, to jump in and try something new– what if, at that moment of failure, someone walks in and observes us and questions our competence? Is it worth the risk? What if we try something, and it adversely affects our students or our job somehow? What if I do it wrong? What if my evaluator sees? Sometimes I forget how real these questions are, because when it comes to technology, my job is to press the buttons. I’m comfortable with technology and love trying new things with it. Unfortunately, this means that I sometimes don’t have as much empathy as I should for people for whom trying technology presents a greater feeling of risk and vulnerability. C’mon it’s easy! Just try it, no risk involved!, I can hear myself saying.
Enter SUP Yoga. I have been practicing yoga for a pretty long time, and very rarely do I have yoga experiences that take me out of this comfort zone. Well, this weekend I had the opportunity to try Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga with my wonderful colleagues Lynn and Marianne. I have SUP’d (is that a verb?) before, but never SUP yoga’d. It was definitely more challenging than regular yoga, as you need to engage about ten times as many muscles as you do during normal yoga so you don’t fall off the board into the water. Near the end of class, we started to have some options for trying more complicated poses– this is where my self-doubt and fear of failure kicked in. What if I try some of these things and I fall in? No one else had fallen in yet, so what would it say if I did? Will it look like maybe I’m not that “good?” Maybe it would be best if I just stuck with the basics and didn’t take a risk, since I couldn’t control the outcome the way that I can in a regular yoga class. Plus the failure would be so public! I mean, imagine the splash?! I admit that these thoughts did swirl around in my head for a bit, but the instructor was incredibly encouraging, and everyone else was just there to do their best and enjoy a beautiful end-of-summer day on the lake, so I just went for it. And guess what? I fell in. A lot. I think the grand total may have been eight times right in the lake.
But I learned a lot from each of those tries– I learned about center of gravity, the importance of grip and core engagement, all feedback I can use next time around. And nothing bad happened. I don’t know what everyone thought of me and all my crash and burns, but it really doesn’t matter. I failed– but failed forward. And I think it gave me a little empathic insight into how others might feel uncomfortable or afraid when I encourage them to try some new technology tool or strategy. The fear of failure is real, but with the right support and mindset, we can all learn to “press the button” and fall in (the water’s fine)!