Okay. You can all exhale now. After all, I know you’ve been holding your breath since I ended my last post with a cliffhanger. Well, the wait is over. Let’s talk about the one thing that absolutely, positively cannot be overlooked if you are to create a successful student-led environment. Here it is:
We must allow our students to fail.
Now this seems to completely contradict some of my previous points, but it doesn’t. There’s a difference between “setting them up to fail” and “letting them fail.” It’s a fine line. You can’t just throw them to the wolves. “You want to sing a solo? Okay. Bring a sound track Sunday night and let’s go for it!” But, at the same time, there are valuable lessons in failing.
There are times a student has approached me with something he/she wanted to do, or an approach he/she wanted to take. I’ve offered advice, told them what I thought would be the right approach, etc. But if they didn’t heed that instruction, at times I’ve let them do it anyway. Did I know it probably wouldn’t be successful? Sure. But the experience of trying it out and seeing that it didn’t work will teach them more than me setting forth a mandate that “You will do it my way, or else!”
The trick, then, is to help them “fail gracefully.” I’ll give you an example.
A few years ago, our pastor asked us to do a Youth Sunday service on Pentecost Sunday evening. A student approached me stating he wanted to do something in the service on the history of the modern Apostolic movement. I told him go for it, but make sure he showed me what he put together Sunday morning. As always, I explained what we were planning with our pastor, and he was excited about what this young man was planning.
Well, this young man showed up Sunday morning with nothing. He said he’d work on it this afternoon. I told him to let me know if he didn’t think he could get it done so I could inform the pastor, but he assured me he could figure it out. Around 4 PM he called me and said he couldn’t find what he was looking for, and asked if I could put it together for him. My response? “No.” I offered advice, I created a framework for him to succeed, and I even gave him an exit route if he chose to take it. He had an opportunity to be successful, but he chose to take a different route. He was about to learn a difficult, but valuable lesson.
That evening, the pastor patted the young man on the shoulder before church and said “I’m looking forward to your presentation.” The boy then had to explain that it wasn’t going to happen and why. Of course, neither the pastor nor I gave him a hard time. It was obvious he was embarrassed. But he’s never missed another assignment, or waited until the last minute to do anything he’s been tasked with. And since then, he’s been very clear to communicate to me when he felt he was no longer going to be able to accomplish something. He’s not perfect…but he’s come a long way, and he’s on our youth staff now.
At the end of the day, we can’t completely protect young people from making mistakes if we want them to grow. Sure, the impulse is to ride in on a white horse and save them, but is that fair to them? Does that give them room to grow? Does that help them learn their own strengths and weaknesses? Probably not.
Now, absolutely there are times we should bail them out and save them from major embarrassment. But we’ll get to that in my next point.
So what do you think? What are your thoughts on letting your students fail?