As a working mom, I’m often surprised at the intersection I find between parenting and teaching.
As I wade deeper into the waters of parenting a 4-year-old and teaching high school students, I’m learning more about the balance between effort and opportunity. After continually seeing students struggle when faced with challenges, it’s clear that teens are faced with a dilemma: try something they’re not sure will be successful, or give up.
Risk is scary because it suggests potential failure. We sometimes forget that struggle is normal and that mistakes create opportunity; room to make mistakes is also room to succeed. Now that I am a parent, I understand the challenge faced with letting my child fail. It seems counterintuitive. But I am slowly learning that kids just need chances and choices, with a soft spot to land.
Yesterday my daughter asked to go swimming. It had been about a month since our last lesson at the Homestead Aquatic Center; I’d pressed the pause button as she began growing anxious about the lessons. She’d begun prefacing every lesson with “But don’t get my hair wet!” so I’d decided to wait until she was ready. As a teacher, I worked with intention to build a foundation of trust in my classroom, and it was then that students opened up, took risks, and learned from their mistakes. But did that apply to a 4-year-old learning how to swim? I had no idea.
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Homestead has a lovely open-swim pool with a long ramp, allowing for slowly wading in. We dipped our toes into the shallow end, and my daughter pulled out an assortment of dolls. After a few minutes, she lay on her belly in the water, testing her limits.
I watched her cautiously raise her legs behind her and kick. She lowered her head then rose with a wide grin, droplets of water clinging to her face.
“Did you put your mouth underwater?” I asked, already knowing the answer by her proud smile.
“I did!” she exclaimed.
I hadn’t asked her to, or even expected it, but she had nonetheless. Sitting in the shallow end, splashing and singing, she felt safe enough to take a risk.
It’s funny how safety can lead to opportunities for the right risks. Conversely, one can live on such a stressful ledge that taking a chance seems impossible. I used to teach in Boston, and was so afraid of making a mistake that I barely grew as an educator; the stress stifled us.
Now, in a job I love, I’m amazed at the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met. I’ve had a lot of chances to blunder and in the process have learned how creating a safe space for mistakes leads to innovation. I hadn’t realized that as an adult it was still so important to feel supported.
After a recent professional development day at work, I realized how much I love being surrounded by teachers who tell their students, “OK, although you did your homework wrong, that’s actually really great because now we know what to work on!” We embrace the philosophy of showing effort, not perfection. So many kids are afraid to make mistakes because it has been hammered into them that failure is wrong. Many students start the school year afraid to mess up; no one is diving into the deep end on the first day.
At the end of the day, as a parent and an educator, what I’ve learned is that with the right support you won’t fail forever. Growth-friendly learning environments help us fail forward. My daughter showed this to me.
After an hour in the pool, I told my daughter it was time to get out and head home for lunch. She agreed, and then leaned back to the water, soaking her head. She sat up, giggling. “My head feels heavy!” she marveled buoyantly. She noted the people behind her upside down, and when she sat up, I could tell this was a new discovery she wanted to do again and again.
It wasn’t that she’d become brave spontaneously, but that she had the opportunity to choose the braveness, and knowing that it would have been OK if today she couldn’t be brave.
Katie Mgongolwa teaches high school English and lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org