Margin of error – Know your story, tell your story

This is the third installment of a series of posts on storytelling – Know your story, tell your story. My hope is to share a few anecdotes that have shaped me as a person and as an educator in order to connect and grow.

Growing up, I was a gymnast. I was one of those kids (aren’t we all?) that bounced off the walls and had so much energy I didn’t know what to do with it, nor did my parents. I treated every space as a new challenge – is there room for a handstand? I saw grocery aisles as hallways for cartwheels, parking curbs as balance beams…you get the picture. The sport grew from something that kept me from breaking everything in our house to a serious endeavor that by high school consumed most of my time outside of school.

Over the years I fell, crashed, struggled, cried, and wanted to give up so many times I can’t even count. At times I was injured and had to figure out how to overcome. By the end of my career (always funny to say it that way with gymnasts, I was 17) I was 5’4″. For anyone who is not familiar with the sport, I was very tall for a gymnast. I had to work harder than my teammates who were much shorter to achieve the same results. The work was demanding, but it was worth it. I found success. I enjoyed the challenge, and loved to express myself through the artistry of the sport. My favorite event was balance beam, the event that most female gymnasts dread. I liked the mental toughness required to stick a beam routine in competition.

Here’s the catch – I never thought of gymnastics as a learning experience, I only associated learning with school. I knew I was going to have to work though a lot of struggle and failure to acquire new skills to improve my gymnastics, but didn’t make the connection that this was just as important to experience in school. In school I felt I had to be perfect. Perfect from the beginning of the year until the end. Perfect on every assessment, assignment, and piece of homework. There was no room for failure in that building, however when I stepped in the gym everything changed. Why? Everything I did in school ‘counted’. My classmates and I were under a microscope being assigned grades for everything we did no matter whether it was academic or behavioral. Failure and setbacks were not framed in a positive light – there was no time for those.

Reflecting now, it’s no surprise that these two worlds didn’t make a better connection for me until I was older. It’s funny that the margin of error seems very small when thinking of gymnastics, yet I felt the margin was narrower in the classroom. As an educator, I make it a point to use sports analogies frequently when talking about the learning experience. Kids and adults connect with the comparison, and it becomes easier to see how classrooms and schools can best support learning. When students see that learning is not confined to the walls of the school, they come to a couple of understandings I wish I would have realized earlier. Learning happens everywhere. Learning is full of setbacks, discovery, failure, and success. Learning is just what we do.

Sowing the seeds of success

“The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”                                         – Paramahansa Yogananda

As spring is beginning all around me (and I am very thankful for that after a harsh winter), I notice a distinct change in myself as well as in students and colleagues. The weather changes, and moods improve. The volume level of students also increases in the hallways, but there is a renewed energy all around. I enjoy this change in season so much.

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This is also a time when students can grow tired and stagnant in their learning at school. They see the prospect of a summer vacation, and time can’t seem to go by fast enough.  Engagement can lull, and setbacks happen both with academics and behavior. What can we do about it? The frustration level of staff increases, and we wonder…what happened to these students? Why have things suddenly changed?

Let’s remind both ourselves and our students that failure before success is natural. By this time in the school year, students can feel that they should be past the point of failure. They have been in your classroom for months now and are used to the routine. They may grow weary with anything that is difficult or challenging. This is the moment we need to rise to the occasion. It is a tough time for all, but when we re-energize and bring it to our classrooms and schools, students are rejuvenated as well.

I love the essence of the quote above. Sowing the seeds of success after failure is a skill we want students to develop and take forward into adulthood. But this is a skill we need to help students cultivate. Let’s face it – fighting for success is hard! Giving up is much easier, and some kids are conditioned to do just that. Be candid with your students and tell them failing is not what matters. What matters is that we recover and are better for the experience. Remind students that this process happens time and time again and show them how to turn it into a positive experience. Call to their attention how messy recovery can be and assure them this is normal. Modeling how failure and recovery manifest in our own lives demonstrates that we all need resilience to move forward.

So as we move into a very welcomed spring season, keep your enthusiasm for learning and expectations for success high. The kids need it…and so do you!