John Prockter suggests that failing is not the end of the world, providing we are trying new stuff

School Failure_v1

In this series of schoolwork articles, I’ve spoken about principles for success and different types of engagement. So far, I’ve covered assemblies, conferences, chaplaincy and mentoring. There are more I plan to write about, but this month I want to take a pitstop to discuss how to respond when things go wrong.

Let me kick off with the most obvious example. If you make a mistake or are perceived to have made a mistake, you can only explain and apologise. Hopefully, a good relationship and an excellent track record will help. I’m so aware that most missional school work is voluntary, and if something goes wrong, schools have little obligation to keep us around. 

Take, for example, a weekend camp I ran many years ago with many young people who were more connected to me in school than the church. On this particular camp, I had my wife along as a leader with the rest of my team, and we had our three-year-old in tow. During the weekend, I played the part of camp leader, youth leader, team leader and Dad. This kind of situation can cause tension, and as I’ve got older, I tend to keep a little more separation between those roles, but in those days, I just threw everyone in the same pot and gave it a stir.

Unfortunately, when we returned to the school on Monday morning, I was called to the deputy head’s office and was given the grilling of my life. He started by asking me about the safeguarding for our camp, who led it and what the context was. As the questions developed, I began to sense a more and more hostile attitude from him and asked him what had happened.

Apparently, a concerned parent had called him with a story their child had told them about me being called ‘Daddy’ on the weekend. The phone call had set alarm bells off in the school, and they had launched a safeguarding enquiry.

When he told me what the parent said, I slightly sniggered nervously, prompting him to remind me how serious it all sounded. This is how the conversation ended.

“I’m so sorry; there has been a big misunderstanding here. My young daughter was with me all weekend at the camp.” 

“My goodness”, He replied, beginning to smile to himself.

“I have all the registers and staff list; I can show you clearly in the paperwork that my wife was with me at the camp. You can also talk to the chair of the trust if you want more information.”

“That won’t be necessary, John.” He replied, “Sorry to waste your time.”

And with that, he stood up, held out his hand for me to shake, and sent me on my way.


School Failure_v2


That was a close shave in terms of reputation, and it made me consider my role more deeply. Some of my other schoolwork failures were less potentially career-ending but embarrassing, nonetheless. My failures have included:

  1. Forgetting to land the point in an assembly, making my presentation less about Jesus and more like a bad stand-up routine.
  2. Mishandling classroom behaviour so badly that I had to leave mid-way through a lesson without any students noticing.
  3. Going to teach an RE lesson as a visitor the morning after our first child was born, spending an hour talking about the beauty of childbirth when I was supposed to be talking about the problem of evil.
  4. Turning up to a school that values DBS forms very highly, with a visiting speaker who didn’t have a DBS.
  5. Inviting a rap group to a school for a lunchtime concert, which ended with 800 students dancing on tables while the group performed. While they led the party, I stood at the back with the head teacher. (and you can imagine how that conversation went)

I could go on, but the point here is to encourage you to worry less about failure. Instead, I’d like to encourage you to find new ways to fail.

I often tell people I train that if you stick your neck out, you’re far more likely to get your head knocked off. Of course, the saying ‘stick your neck out’ means to take risks, but it’s important to understand that the risk taker is someone in the most fragile position, doing their best to succeed. They’ll take knocks in confidence and be told they’re wrong (a lot), but If I can offer any wisdom here, you should find ways to stretch your working practice, despite the risks. That’s not to say that I’m advocating for risky or wrong behaviour. 

What I mean is that you could very easily lead a safe, ‘inside the lines’ ministry, but I highly value testing and trying new approaches, even if they don’t work. In some ways, this might be more about being brave, but I want to encourage you that failure is a key component of excellence, 

Take, for example, a reflective resource I call, ‘The Justice Game.’ When my team and I first invented the game, we played it for quite some time and debated its appearance. Two of my team members came up with this fantastic idea that we could create transparent cups filled with representations of justice issues. They had an idea that we could fill the cups with soap, which we melted, and then let set in the cup, encasing different objects to great effect. It made for an excellent visual. It was tactile, engaging and a really good discussion starter. Well, that’s to say that it was wonderful until we used it on a hot day. On that day, young people got pretty sticky, and our resource completely fell apart. 

Undeterred, we set about making a new version of the game, and we took the idea of the cup and designed mugs with justice issues on them instead. This version of the Justice Game has lasted for three or so years, but now the mugs are breaking, and it’s too expensive to replace them, so I’m going to work on the next iteration until it’s right.

Ironing out what’s not working isn’t always easy, and it can take a long time to get something right, but I’d like to encourage you that whatever your particular failure is, success is probably only another moment of bravery away.

Finally, let me encourage you that God seems to love a humble failure too, so if you’re not currently winning, you’re in good company.I