We are all a bit hesitant to talk publicly about our failures. It is hard. It dredges up old memories that might not be so pleasant. In a world that celebrates achievement and success, failure is still seen a sign of weakness or incompetence. Yes, we hear many people talk about embracing failure and “learning from failure”, and while I think indeed we should reflect and learn from our failure, we also need to recognize with many, notably our students, it is a difficult process.
As a student affairs professional, and in my years of experience working with students, the concept of failure as something to be celebrated is something is still a difficult sell to students. Despite recent attempts in the media and conversations in professional circles about “grit” and “resilience”, the idea of failure as positive notion is something that in my experience students rarely hear about in their homes and in schools. Therefore, when students arrive in post-secondary environment the concept of celebrating and learning from failure in my experience is so foreign we might as well be speaking another language. Add into the mix the expectations of parents, cultural norms and academic expectations it can be a very daunting task for a students and those work in student affairs to undertake.
So what do we do about this? I think there are a multitude of ways to change the channel put it involves many players and to some extent a wholesale shift in how we think, what we portray to our students and ultimately the messages we send as part of student experience. Here are some options I think we need consider with our students.
- Be deliberate with our messages. In student affairs we talk so much about student success and achievement. Through leadership awards, student profiles, and marketing material for programs, we talk about the outcome, but we don’t talk enough about the struggle, process and the work it takes to be successful. If we were a bit more deliberate about our messages instead of focusing on the reward at end, imagine what that could do for students?
- Impact the Parents. We know that parents are the most impactful influencers of our students. Students will often go to them before any other professional advice. This is why I believe that parental education programs during orientation and transition programs are required. The tacit and overt messages given to students about success or failure are mediated through parents to our students so we have to be clear with parents and significant others about the experiences that students will face and positive learning that will result when there is failure.
- Failing is ok and required. In student affairs work or working in higher education we “Monday morning quarterback” on how we could have intervened earlier or been more intentional with students at risk. While I agree with some programming is important, when students experience failure we should find ways for students to learn from failure. Too often in my experience, students have experience pseudo-failure in secondary school where they haven’t had to experience the real consequences, student have not really felt the full impact of failure. Therefore, instituting programs that help teach students to navigate the emotions of failure and realize deficiencies, so they can make real change happen.
Ultimately, I think our biggest issues and failure as student affairs professionals is not being open with our students about failure. I am not talking about scaring our students with the old line “look to the left and right of you, one of you won’t be here” approach. I am talking about building programs that really help students navigate failure and facilitate learning because that is critical part of becoming a successful student and citizen.