Jessica Lahey has steadily become one of this country’s preeminent voices bridging educational experiences with parenting and the community. You have probably read her work in the New York Times and The Atlantic. We went down the hall with Lahey to discuss her new book and its place on the bookshelves of school-based leaders.
Dr. Berger: Your upcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (Harper Collins) could be used as the basis for a number of topics in global education. Do you think we are effective, as school leaders, at demonstrating the value of failure to our teachers and students and how could we improve in this manner?
Jessica Lahey: The complaint that has come up about American students on the international stage is that we tend to raise inflexible thinkers, kids who follow rules well but can’t think independently. This is what I was seeing in my classroom as well.
Early in my career, I remember giving out a purposefully open-ended writing assignment and it really upset some of my students. One girl, was reduced to tears when I would not just tell her what I wanted her to regurgitate on paper. She needed rules, specifics, and a lot of hand-holding on what should have been a freeing, fun adventure in personal narrative. This sort of paralysis came up more and more often, and while my students could hit the target when I gave them everything short of the GPS coordinates, their fear of missing the target was looming larger and larger over my classroom, and was starting to really handicap my teaching.
When I finally realized that it was not just overly prescriptive teaching that was to blame, it was overly prescriptive, directive, and controlling parenting that was at the center of it all. Once I realized this, I set out to ensure that my students and my own children received as much autonomy over the details of their lives as they could handle. And once they learned how to handle that autonomy, I gave them more.
This control over goals and the end product of their learning renders failure less problematic; if a kid fails to reach a self-imposed goal, it’s no big deal. More importantly, I had to allow my students and kids to see me fail. They had to see me admit to my mistakes, make amends for errors in facts or judgment, and project courage and intellectual risk-taking. We can talk all we want, and tell kids what’s best for them, but until we act according to our own directives, kids won’t have any faith in our ideals. They are much smarter and more observant than that.
RB: How does our reliance on assessment and data impact our ability as teachers and administrators to communicate with students the value of lessons learned through the ups and downs of ones journey through school?
JL: It’s a double-edge sword. Look, I am a huge fan of data, particularly when we use it as a formative tool, to find out what’s lacking in our teaching, get information on what our students know and don’t know, and then use that information going forward. However, grades, honors, points and other artificial, extrinsic motivators, undermine kids’ drive. Do you want to learn French in order to get an “A” or in order to communicate with another human being? Would you rather learn about leverage in order to create a working trebuchet or in order to get one more point on the final exam? When I talk to parents about alternatives to the reality of grading, I tell them to create a haven from grades at home. Make discussion at home about student-generated goals, not grades. Keep report cards off the refrigerator, out of conversation, and stay off the parent grading portal at all costs. Refuse the PIN and username, let the school know you won’t be using it, and talk to your child instead. the more control you exert over the minutiae of your child’s learning, the less they will be motivated to learn. The research on that is clear.
RB: I have found that one of the most challenging aspects of school leadership lies in one’s ability to effectively communicate with parents and caregivers of students. How did this relationship break down and how can we mend fences to have a more integrated and supportive learning environment for our kids?
JL: One of the most damaging byproducts of a parenting style that relies on control – of kids, their teachers, the school, sports, etc – is a breakdown in relationships between parents and teachers, coaches, pastors, and community volunteers. It makes teaching a much more challenging and frustrating job, I can attest to that. Increasingly, parents want to micromanage teachers, which conveys distrust of those teachers, and in an environment where teachers feel undermined and micromanaged by policymakers at baseline, morale is low. We have to find a way to return to a reasonable level of trust – parents have to trust teachers and kids a bit more, and if we do that, I think kids will trust us a bit more in return.
RB: We often see this dynamic play out between teachers and administrators too. What responsibilities do teachers have to improve their working relationship with school leaders and how can teacher prep programs support these relationships when training teachers?
JL: Administrators have the power to set the tone for the entire learning climate at a school. If administrators are distrustful, or defensive, or act according to fear of litigation or parental retribution rather than out of service to the students and their education, teachers feel that. Students feel it, too, and become distrustful of our motives in return. It may sound simplistic, but trust, and the autonomy that flows from trust, is the answer to so many of these ills.
RB: What issue, in education, are we not paying attention to that both teachers and school leaders should have on their radar?
JL: Joy. Hope. Optimism, and the impact that all of these have on our students’ willingness and drive to learn.
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Jessica Lahey is an educator, author, and speaker. She writes the bi-weekly column “The Parent-Teacher Conference” for the New York Times, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and a commentator on Vermont Public Radio. Her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will be published by HarperCollins in August of 2015.
Dr. Berger is a global education media personality featured on the Core of Education, AmericanEdTV, in Ed Tech Review India and on RFD TV’s Rural Education Special. Dr. Berger also serves as Vice President of Education for RANDA Solutions an education software and data management firm named three times to the INC 5000. As an industry personality Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten and other global thought leaders. Dr. Berger is a guest lecturer at Vanderbilt University and resides with his wife and two children in Nashville.