Best education leaves room for mistakes

Nothing says back to school more than walking into your local Walmart and seeing the glorious array of school supplies greeting you. Having been in education all of my life, I have to admit I love the start of school and its offer of new beginnings for all involved. The one thing, though, I wish parents and students could find — but won’t — in these aisles would be the ability to understand perfection is not necessarily a part of the education process.

Our high school students recently took a survey in order to help the counseling staff learn more about their counseling needs and the roadblocks they encounter in school. The two concerns that overwhelmingly stand out above the others are that our students feel stressed, and they fear making mistakes.

Nearly 73 percent of our students who took the survey indicated they believe daily stress impacts their learning, while one-third of our students are afraid of making mistakes. What has the educational system done to students if the one place that is geared to learning and growing from mistakes causes such high emotional distress?

I believe it starts with a focus on grades and a perceived sense of competition from an early age.

To combat this, many districts have moved toward standards-based report cards at the lower grades to help students and parents focus more on essential learning skills rather than on a letter grade.

I don’t know when it happened, but our society has become so fixated on the value of letter grades rather than on learning outcomes that one school in New York has even offered to give parents an alternate report card for their students to see with better grades on it.

Don’t believe me? Just Google “Inwood, New York, change grades” and read about it for yourself.

How are those students ever going to be able to face failure or even know what it looks like if they are unable to know where they stand in the classroom?

What happens to the students whose parents hide them from educational struggles?

I shudder to think about their first semester of college or their first week on the job if they have never learned to persevere through disappointment in order to learn who they are.

Why do I think our students feel so much stress and a need for perfection? I believe it’s because our society no longer accepts anything less than “A” work. In our all-or-nothing world, it’s either right or wrong with no room for error.

And, let’s be honest, errors lead to some of our best work and greatest personal growth experiences. I often have students ask to drop a class because they are earning a B or C and believe they are failing. Where does that idea come from?

Author Cheryl Strayed recently shared how her drive for perfection nearly ruined her. Her quest of writing the best “Great American Novel” was what was, in fact, holding her back from writing at all. She said, “I knew I was going to fall short of greatness. So I had to rewrite the story of what greatness was. I had to figure out how to measure success differently.”

Once she gave up her dream of perfection, she wrote a national best seller, “Wild.”

As we prepare for a new school year and the beginnings it has to offer, let’s give our children permission to make mistakes and to rewrite what success means to them.

Allow them to achieve it through messy attempts, and let’s praise effort, not perfection. As a result, we might allow them to learn more and worry less.

Kim Kile is the director of school counseling at Greenfield-Central High School. She can be reached at