A Guide for School Leaders to Grow from Failure in 3 Steps

Did you recently experience a setback? Perhaps a professional development day that didn’t go as planned, or a student activity that didn’t receive the desired response? As educators, we always strive for innovative and engaging learning experiences for our students. However, with innovation also comes occasional failures.

In her book Right Kind of Wrong, Amy Edmondson states, “Mastery in any field requires a willingness to learn something from the many mistakes you will necessarily make.” This is the key: using failure as an opportunity for growth. Here are three ways to transform your epic fail into a catalyst for success.

My Epic Fail

Let me share one of my recent failures as an example. When I was the principal of Ellis Middle School, we attempted to implement a block schedule during the Covid-19 pandemic. Upon returning to in-person learning, we wanted to retain certain aspects of the block schedule while reintroducing elements from the previous seven-period schedule. To refine our block schedule system, we introduced a concept called “the zipper.” The idea was to combine A and B days into an eight-period structure on Wednesdays, offering a unique approach to student scheduling. We thought everything was well-prepared, with synchronized bells and updated schedules. However, when it was time to put the theory into action, it turned out to be a complete disaster.

Things went smoothly until lunchtime when chaos ensued. The students’ lunch schedules didn’t align with their course schedules, leading to confusion. Teachers took attendance in class only to find that almost half of their students were in the lunchroom. Frustration started to build among both students and teachers. We realized we needed to step back, analyze the situation, and figure out where we went wrong.

Step one: Reflect and Analyze

Unfortunately, by the end of the first zipper day, our idea encountered a major obstacle. This prompted us to reassess the situation. Take the time to reflect on the failure and conduct a thorough analysis. Ask yourself and your team critical questions: What caused it to go wrong? Were there any warning signs we overlooked? Which factors contributed to the setback? Honest reflection is the initial step towards extracting meaningful lessons from the experience.

At the end of the first zipper day, the counselors, assistant principal, and a few key teachers convened in the war room (also known as the master scheduling board room) to review the courses and bell schedule. We even simulated walking through students’ schedules to identify the problem. In the following days, we sought feedback from both students and teachers, asking for their observations and suggestions to prevent another zipper disaster on future Wednesdays.

We discovered which classes caused conflicts during lunch and how it affected student schedules. We also realized that we had overlooked conflicts that some teachers had when they taught different grades on A-days and B-days. This experience taught us that even the best-intentioned ideas can have hiccups when put into practice.

Step two: Seek Feedback and Collaboration

Don’t bear the burden alone. Engage with your team, peers, or mentors to gather diverse perspectives on the failure. Constructive feedback provides valuable insights and alternative viewpoints that you may have overlooked. Collaborative discussions can uncover the root causes and reveal innovative solutions for future endeavors.

The following week, I remember sitting in my car, preparing to enter the building, attend our staff meeting, and admit to the failure. In my mind, I anticipated facing criticism and disapproval. However, to my surprise, I was met with welcoming smiles and even a few laughs about the chaos that had occurred the week prior.

After allowing myself to be vulnerable, we got to work. We continued to share ideas and collaborate to fix what had gone wrong. On our campus, we made a conscious effort to become more curious about failure and learn from it rather than letting it dent our confidence. Rather than blaming others, we channeled our energy into figuring out the cause of the failure and finding ways to make it right.

Step three: Implement Adjustments and Iterate

Utilize the lessons learned to strategically adjust your leadership approach or overall plan. Identify actionable steps to address the shortcomings and mitigate potential risks. Embrace a mindset of continuous improvement and iteration. Remember, failure is not the end but an opportunity to refine strategies, enhance decision-making, and strengthen your leadership skills.

The “zipper” schedule proved to be a valuable learning experience. By openly and honestly discussing what went wrong, we were able to identify what needed to change to rectify the situation. While we didn’t revert to the original zipper schedule, we ultimately developed a modified block schedule with an A-B rotation. With input from our math department, we ensured that there was an equal number of A and B days throughout the entire school year.

Remember, it’s not about the failure itself, but how you respond to it. Take that failure, extract its wisdom, and let it propel you to even greater heights in your leadership journey. By incorporating these practices, you can transform failures into stepping stones for growth and resilience. So, when was the last time you encountered an epic fail, flop, or fall? And, more importantly, what did you learn from it?

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