Is Failure an Option?

A little over a month ago, I posted about Failure is not an Option, which is a book the team leaders and administrators on my campus are reading and discussing.  And a couple of days ago, I received a very lengthy and intense comment from James O’Keeffe.  I have put off responding to the comment because it has taken me some time to formulate my thoughts on the matter, but I think I am ready now, so here goes… 

Let me start by saying that I disagree with almost every point Mr. O’Keeffe makes in his comment; however, I will only choose a few of them to discuss here. 

Just what teachers everywhere should be doing more of: writing vision statements and mission statements.” 

I honestly do not see the harm in having teachers and administrators spend time on developing vision and mission statements.  In fact, I think it is a good idea because, as with goal setting, it gives individual teachers, teams and the school at large, set ideals to work towards.   

This is something we do at our school at the beginning of each year.  The school’s mission statement – providing a relevant learning experience for life – is revisited; each team is ask to set team goals and each teacher is asked to set individual goals.  The process itself takes minimal time, but it gives everyone specifics to strive towards and creates a cohesive environment in which to work. 

“The Professional Learning Communities movement is the latest educratic fad to be dumped on the already overburdened shoulders of American teachers…” 

The one point I do agree with is that many teachers feel overburdened, but I don’t see how creating Professional Learning Communities adds to this. In my opinion, PLC’s actually help by taking some of the stress off overburdened teachers. The purpose of PLC’s is to create a cohesive learning environment where, if instituted correctly, teachers are working in a collaborative effort to create lessons, support each other with discipline problems and parent contacts, (through teaming) and share instructional strategies. 

Mr. O’Keeffe also spends some time discussing how the thoughts in the book are not necessarily new but are being touted as such.  In all honesty, there are very rarely in actual new ideas in writing (and education for that matter).  Most books are spin-offs of thoughts expressed by someone else at a previous time, and I think the same can be said for educational theory.  I don’t think, however, that this excuses the need to continually read and discuss current publications because in doing so ideas are revisited and perhaps addressed in a different matter because of changes in culture, economic factors, societal issues, etc. 

“Today’s students have been so protected from themselves by coddling parents, shallow curriculum, and reduced standards that they are blissfully unaware of the danger they face as incompetent and illiterate adults. They’ve never been made to experience the consequences of failure and thus have nothing but contempt for our warnings and our repeated attempts to motivate them.” 

Wow!  This statement makes me sad, and makes me hope that Mr. O’Keeffe was just having a bad day when he wrote it.  Yes, teaching is a difficult profession and students can be down right infuriating at times because they don’t turn in their work or don’t see the importance of learning something we feel is necessary for their future success, but I think this statement is a little harsh.  I would guess that a large majority of the students I have taught over the last nine years know pretty well what failure feels like because they have failed grade levels, failed subjects, failed standardized tests, and failed to learn how to read and write English at their designated grade level.  I am also fairly certain that many of them have also felt the sting of failure in their personal lives as well because they have not lived up to their parent’s expectations, have failed to be successful at work and at school, and in countless other ways.   

Is it important to teach our students our academic subject area?  Of course, it is, but I think you can achieve this while helping the students overcome failure and feel successful… maybe this is just the eternal optimist in me. 

Mr. O’Keeffe continues by discussing what he feels to be the misuse of educational funds to purchase books like Failure is Not an Option for the purpose of book studies because he feels the money could be better spent on computer labs, sets of novels, etc.  I agree with Mr. O’Keeffe that purchasing a book for every teacher in a school district might be excessive.  In fact, I can see how even purchasing a book for every teacher at a school might be excessive, but I don’t see the problem in purchasing books for a group (i.e. a leadership cadre, a department, a team of teachers, administrators) who can then read and discuss the ideas in the book and share with the staff as a whole.  The books are then available on campus for those who were not necessarily included in the “top rung” of the book study to check out and read.  I am not going to say that Failure is an Option is the best educational book I have read because it is not.  However, I do see the value in the book because it has given us the opportunity to revisit and discuss ideas that are pertinent to our field.  It has given us the opportunity to hear the perspectives of others. In my opinion, it is the discussion and the importance placed on continual growth that is important. 

“Here’s a new paradigm, everyone: return to substantive teaching and learning, value teachers for their expertise in the subjects or grade-levels they teach; leave psychology to the psychologists, motivation to the counselors, and social problems to the social workers.” 

Really?  I think this statement is naïve.  Yes, teachers should be valued for their expertise in the subject that they teach, but subject area knowledge is not the only thing that makes a good teacher.  Effective teachers build relationships with their students, and it is through these relationships that students are motivated to learn the subject that the teachers teach.  Students have to know that the teacher cares about them – that they are just not seen as a receptacle to deposit knowledge in.  Why do you think new teachers have such difficulty their first year teaching?  Hopefully, they are pretty well-versed in their subject area, but what most of them need assistance with is how to relate to students, how to manage discipline issues, how to assist students with learning difficulties, how to teach in a classroom with students of varying ability levels, and how to help a student concentrate on school work when their basic needs are not being met at home.  Should a teacher have to worry about all of these things?  In a Utopian society, I would say no, but the fact of the matter is that they do and just focusing on creating teachers who are experts in a subject area is not going to produce effective teachers. 

“Send every midlevel “facilitator,” “leader,” and “coordinator” back to the classroom and force them to teach again.” 

I think this could potentially be a good idea.  Having administrators revisit the classroom every few years would certainly help them stay current with the ever changing conditions of the classroom as well as give them more credibility with teachers.  Administrators could be asked to teach a summer course every couple of years or pick up a class in the schedule ever so often… it is an idea worth considering. 

I don’t know.  Maybe I am in the minority, but I like the fact that my administrators encourage our professional growth in our subject areas as well as in pedagogy, technology and leadership.  I am glad they encourage us to discuss and work collaboratively. I think not doing so would be irresponsible.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Alan M. Blankstein, Books, Failure is not an Option, Rant, Reading

2 Comments on “Is Failure an Option?”

  1. John Brown Says:

    Mr. O’Keefe has the sound of the many frustrating teachers that I knew throughout my career in education. They are teachers who “present” the subject matter and “set standards” for students. There idea of motivation is to fail those students who do not meet those standards. When failure rates in there classes approach 50% it is, in their minds, clearly the fault of the students, the counselors, the parents, etc. Obviously it could not be their fault!


  2. Very useful information,thank you for putting this nice piece of info for us to read.


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