Permission Granted

My daughter took an improv comedy class this summer – five afternoons of goofy middle schoolers being goofy. At the end of the week, a performance was held for an audience of camera-hoisting parents and fidgety siblings.

The event wasn’t particularly entertaining. (I did mention this was middle school improv comedy, right?) I was struck, though, by one of the organizers, who began by asking a simple question directly to the audience: “Do we have your permission to fail?”

“Yes,” the parents replied, smiling and nodding. Then, something surprising happened. The air in the theater suddenly felt lighter, the tween smiles grew broader, and I found myself rooting for those plucky little goofballs.

All it took to win over this reluctant audience member was for that leader to admit uncertainty and ask for a little grace.

What does this have to do with our classrooms? Risk taking is necessary for growth. It requires bravery, a rare commodity when you’re 14 and constantly worried you might do something that makes you look like an idiot. It’s much safer to stay quiet, keep your hand down, and avoid eye contact.

Several times this fall, I’ve helped the oxygen return to the room by using that improv leader’s line and simply telling my freshmen that it’s okay to be wrong. (My juniors, interestingly, have no problem being wrong. They’re loud and proud; I’m used to it.)

Teachers also need to be brave and take some academic risks. I had lunch last weekend with a teacher friend who’s at the beginning of her career. She fretted. I consoled. It’s what we do. While brainstorming curriculum over big salads, she admitted, “If I’m not sure I can do something perfectly, I don’t even want to go there.”

WHAT?!?! No, no, no, my sweet. Go there. Take the risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I implored. Explain to your students that you want to try something new and then ask, “Do I have your permission to fail?”

You’ll be surprised by how often the answer is yes.

Teach on, everyone!


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8 years ago

So much truth and wisdom here. I needed to be reminded of this, so thank you (and thank you for expressing it so eloquently). Once a year with my grade 9s, I make them write a short piece on: “If I were guaranteed not to fail, and I weren’t afraid of what people would think, I would…” The thoughts expressed are often startling, touching, heartbreaking and inspiring. Perhaps we should do a blog link up on the topic! 😉 Anyway, as always, write more please.

Laura Randazzo
8 years ago

Thanks, Stacey. I’m mulling over a big, scary new project to launch with my freshmen this spring, so I’ll definitely need to follow my own advice. I might use your writing prompt as a launching piece – great idea!

Rebekah D.
Rebekah D.
6 years ago

My theme this year has been growth mindset, and I routinely say things like “progress over perfection.” It helps. I am a Sp.Ed. teacher; some of my kids are totally used to failing miserably, so they won’t try. Others have been so accommodated that they only get 100%, so when I grade strictly, they freak out.

Laura Randazzo
6 years ago
Reply to  Rebekah D.

Oh yeah, Rebekah. Even my college-prep kids are way too quick to throw their hands up and surrender rather than struggle through a challenge. This is why I love 20Time so much and why I build things like the Famous Failures bulletin board, a great conversation starter with kids. Thanks for commenting!

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