If you’re a parent, you KNOW how hard this is.  Let them fail?  Really?  I should let my babies FAIL?

If you’re a teacher, you’ve given this advice to the parents of students that you teach – because you know that sometimes the best lessons are learned when they are able to find their way out of their own tangles, messes, or misjudgments.  You’ve probably (hopefully) counseled parents to stop bringing their children’s homework to school if it was left at home.  You’ve likely given parents the advice to set up expectations, give frameworks…and then step away so that their kids could try on their own…and sometimes fail.

If you’re an educational leader or mentor, this also holds true, and it’s equally as difficult.  If you’ve mentored staff, led a department, or groomed educators for advancement, and then stepped aside and given them some control – it’s so incredibly difficult to sit back and finally watch them make decisions on their own…particularly when you have the foresight of experience to know that their choices may not be fruitful.  As a “mama bear” or “papa bear”, you see further down the road than your cubs.  It can be so hard to hold your tongue and hold back when you truly empower the staff that you mentor.  It’s more than baby birds out of the nest….it comes down to  professional appearances, ability judgements, and reputation.  As you oversee them, it could result in diminished quality of learning, instruction, communication, etc….in which case you just may need to intervene.  Most of the time, however, it will work out just great.  But what if it doesn’t?

Okay, so yes…you let your babies fail.  Yes really.  I’m not kidding – don’t intervene, and don’t give advice immediately after it happens.  Remember, it’s not really a failure – it’s a lesson, and as we teach our students, that is how learning happens.  Until we release this responsibility to them, we’ve led by example, shown them the ropes, provided structure and guidance, led them through simulations, modeled solid thinking and troubleshooting – and most of all…boosted their confidence to try their hand at leadership!  As leaders, we ultimately need to give our staff (mentees, apprentices, coaches) the opportunity to test their hypotheses and pivot when changes are needed.

I love teaching teachers, and I also coach coaches. This year, I have unintentionally had a summer of stepping back and allowing others in my department to try their hand at some things I would have previously managed.  Building capacity is absolutely my favorite part of my job, but it’s nerve-wracking to hand off major projects and responsibilities.  In the beginning, I definitely set up scaffolds, but then I truly stepped away for much of the summer.  The results and the reports have been absolutely fantastic – they are finding their niches, learning, leading, and making great impressions.  I’m as proud as a peacock in that I’ve gotten reports from teachers, administrators at all levels, students, Board of Education members, and even parents about how well things are going with the systems we have implemented!  In the past week, I’ve popped back into a few affairs when I had time and am trying to provide some remote guidance and encouragement.  Do I see potential challenges?  You bet – but they’re not so huge that they negatively affect teaching and learning.  They’re little lessons.  Again, I jumped in (and right back out again) gently, but as the title of this post says,… “we have to let our kids fail.  It’s the only way they truly learn how to succeed.”

I believe that the job of educational leaders and mentors is to give our mentees the go-ahead to truly try their hand at leadership and decision-making.  We have to let them experiment, grow wings, and give them meaningful feedback (mostly when requested or needed) as their advisors, role models, and coaches.

As leaders, though, we need to always just be ready in the background with four main things in place:

  1. A reasurring shoulder:  This is why we became a mentors.  Leaders lead – but that often means leading from behind by just being a support system.  Let your staff member know that you’re proud of the effort.  Let them celebrate their planning and thinking.  Let them talk through the steps of their efforts…and slowly and gently extract the pitfalls in their plan so they can be empowered to create revisions.
  2. A collaborative solution: This is where the truest leadership comes into play.  Their idea/plan didn’t work as planned, but you STILL don’t want to take control here.  Talk the talk…discuss WHY things didn’t go as planned.  Brainstorm alternative approaches.  Send surveys, ask opinions, and ultimately your job is to hold back and just give guidance as to how to best proceed.  Note: There’s a balance here for leaders.  If the circumstance is dire, you may need to jump in and execute your own initial plan.  Try to let your mentee be a visible part of that and own it.
  3. Data, records, logs:  As leaders, this is ultimately something we need to track out of necessity.  Log the digital and personal interactions you have.  Log the email and verbal communication you share in terms of feedback -positive or negative.  Bookmark, tally, and record communications, efforts, and implementations – both successful and unsuccessful.  We all know that data and documentation are a huge part of leadership and helping us to help the staff we serve.
  4. A backup plan:  This is the thing you’ve been constructing on your own…silently in the background…just in case.  If your mentee had a speech that went wrong, you have a counteractive speech that will revive their concept and their reputation.  If they had an idea that you thought might flop, you have a secondary launch idea based on your expertise and knowledge.  Leaders, when it’s time to implement this backup plan, do it gently and involve your mentee…as much as possible, make it a joint effort so that they have some ownership and can help the new system be implemented.  This is where your leadership is MOST important – you save the day for your customers (students/families) but allow for continued empowerment and growth of the educational leaders that you are trying to cultivate.  Help them to grow and shine!


Hey Ed Leaders, I’d love to hear about how you’ve been empowering others to try their hand at leadership, especially since remote learning became the norm.  I’d also really love to hear how you’re dealing with your own struggles to jump in and take control, because…whew — that can be so difficult!   

As always, find me on Twitter as @kerszi or you can reach me at my new website at Kerszi.com!