14 Sep 2018
Why do we fall?
The Fast Day when my attention turns to… Batman Begins. If you want to distill a key theological understanding of Yom Kippur down to one scene in the movies, this is the one for you. In the scene from the brilliant 2005 movie, a badly injured and despondent Bruce Wayne is rescued by his trusty butler Alfred, who, in his perfect British accent, reminds him of a teaching Bruce’s father taught him when Bruce was a young child:
“Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
There is no better teaching for Yom Kippur. The ability to accept when we fail, learn from our mistakes, and pick ourselves up and strive to do better, is a key aspect of doing meaningful teshuvah and working towards improving ourselves. It’s never helpful to view ourselves as irredeemable, as beyond the pale. I can’t… I’ll never be able to fix… I’m terrible, such a failure… I’m so far from where I want to be… that self-talk is the opposite of a spiritual growth mindset. If you don’t believe you have it in you to grow and improve – you won’t.
This deep understanding has relevance for education as well. When children fear failure, and believe they can’t grow, they damage their ability to be able to bounce back from disappointment or errors, to become truly resilient. A growth mindset and risk-taking are both crucial to academic success and development. When you see a child say I can’t, I suck, I’m a loser, when you see a child stop trying and give up… it’s heartbreaking. Failure is an absolute precondition for learning and growth; it’s an opportunity for students to receive feedback on their strengths as well as their areas of improvement – all for the purpose of getting better.
In an article called “Failure Is Essential to Learning”, Bob Lenz, Executive Director of the Buck Institute for Education, in Novato, CA, writes that:
“How do you make failure students’ friend? Set a high standard and don’t be afraid to tell students that they haven’t met it. But in the next breath, give detailed suggestions on what they can do to improve. And, most important — though so often given short shrift — allow students the time, space, and support to make the revisions. In such a culture, failure does not mean, ‘You lose.’ It means, ‘You can do better. We believe in you. Here is some feedback: revise, and try again.'”
When teachers require students to step out of their comfort zone and become courageous in their choices and actions, and successfully encourage students to take risks and be resilient in the face of challenges, amazing things happen. I’d like to illustrate that with the following story, which was shared at last night’s Hebrew Foundation School ORT Campaign Launch. The highlight of the night was the speech by one of our former students, Alexa, who graduated in 2016. Her father told me her story a while back, and it was extremely powerful. Here it is, in her own words:
“Upon entering HFS, while having strong cognitive and learning skills, I really struggled with my ability to verbalize in any type of public setting. The struggle was so difficult that my parents even explored outside consultation to determine if there was something more serious that was causing my inability to communicate outside my home. Today, I realize that I was just extremely shy and while I did want to speak, it was just very difficult for me. Looking back, as early as grade one and two, I remember the teachers taking such a caring approach with me. Instead of forcing me into an uncomfortable situation, they took the time to create a comfortable environment. Whether it was a Marisol putting her arm around me while asking me questions in front of the class, or Michel Pigeon walking me through a math problem on the black board while making me feel as though we were the only two people in the classroom. I remember the warm smile of a Keren Elkoubi as she patiently waited for me to share my feelings on what Shabbat meant to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was these little things that created a truly special and unique learning environment. Those are just a few of many moments but I now realize that it wasn’t just the way some teachers were, it was the culture of HFS, it was infectious and everyone felt it. When you walk through the halls of the school you can actually feel that nurturing environment that can only be compared to one thing – HOME… By the time I reached grade 5, not only was I speaking in class regularly but I decided that I wanted to address the school and run for Student Council President. I am proud to say I was co-president in 2016. The experience was so rewarding that upon graduating I decided that public speaking was an area that I wanted to perfect and in Secondary 1 at West Island College (WIC), I participated in the CAIS public speaking contest and represented my class in the secondary 1 finals. Public speaking, which I once feared so much, now was becoming my comfort zone. I joined the debate team as an extracurricular activity… By Secondary 2, my CAIS speech was chosen to represent WIC in the Quebec finals where I placed second among the top 20 CAIS schools participating. As the top Junior debater, I represented WIC in the provincial finals and being ranked as a top 5 debater in Quebec I was afforded the opportunity to represent my school and the province at the National Debating Championship this past May in Calgary, Alberta. I truly believe that without that special environment at HFS, without that unique culture, none of these accomplishments would be possible…”
Why do we fall?
So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah.