Ninja Warrior

My boys love watching American Ninja Warrior. They’re fascinated by the athletes and the seemingly impossible obstacles and adversity that are overcome each and every show. I am, too. They know the names of their favorite ninjas, and they spend an inordinate amount of time jumping off of stuff around our home after watching each episode.

In case you’re not familiar with American Ninja Warrior, here’s a quick example of what the show is like:

In no uncertain terms, what they do is amazing. Absolutely incredible.

As much as I don’t love some of the side effects (mostly how everything in my house has the tendency to end up pushed a few inches from where it previously rested as my boys jump from “obstacle” to “obstacle” imitating their favorite ninjas), there is a lot that I really like about my boys watching American Ninja Warrior.

Here’s a bit of what I like most:

Unpredictable challenges
On American Ninja Warrior, the courses always offer unique challenges. No two courses are exactly alike. One course might rely heavily on upper body challenges, while another forces athletes to overcome obstacles that require intense upper body strength. The obstacles are unique and provide a reasonable (even if they initially seem insurmountable) challenge to stretch the ninja warriors to do more than they thought they could before.

Learning from each other
Nearly every successful ninja who shares his or her story includes the team that is vital to their success. The hours of preparation, the practice to develop the strength and skills that these athletes need to do the seemingly impossible is rooted in a community of folks who are dedicated to doing the little things to develop those qualities that will allow each ninja to perform under pressure.

Shared success
Watching the event is unlike any other sporting event I’ve come across. In most instances, there is a clear cut winner and loser. That’s not the case here. Certainly it’s clear who accomplishes the most in the competition, but the camaraderie between the ninjas and the genuine excitement they share for each other with each passing obstacle is something unique to this show. The greatest excitement is in seeing who can conquer the most obstacles, who can do what’s never been done before.

Everybody falls
This is probably my favorite part about American Ninja Warrior. The show not a contest where you can outlast your opponent. You can’t strategize and run out the clock. It’s just you, the obstacles, and all the people who want to want to see you succeed. Still, everyone ends up in the water. If you conquer all the challenges on one night, more await you. They’re welcomed. Even sought after. Because that’s the point. The show exists to help athletes push themselves to do what they thought impossible.

As we watched the show together, though, I began to realize that not only do I want these qualities developed in my kids, I also want a deeper understanding and a greater display of these qualities in myself.

It’s kind of a requirement for us to be successful in our roles in schools, right?

Think about it: When have you not had a week that came without unforeseen obstacles? When have you not spent time watching other educators in their element and not come away better for it? How often have you heard a story of success in another classroom and been energized to go and do likewise in yours?

Maybe there’s a tiny bit of room for debate on the other qualities, I am sure about this. Every single last one of us has known failure. And the nature of our work means that those are not experiences that are had in private. They’re as public as watching an athlete falling into the water after an attempt at doing something amazing.

So, hardworking educator who feels like the obstacles keep coming:

You are not alone.

Learn from those around you.

Watch for those educators who will inspire you.

Share the stories of your successes.

Be honest about the reality of setbacks faced, but use them as the springboard toward your next success story.

And don’t forget: When we’re pushing ourselves to do amazing things, everybody falls. Keep tackling those obstacles, no matter what they may look like.

Set Students Up For Failure?

I’m fascinated by our opportunity to teach our students about failure, its impact, and their ability to overcome their own failures. I know I would have benefited from this instruction as a high school student, so it’s often on my mind as I work through each week on campus.

I’m always looking for something that can help facilitate that conversation about failure well, and it was in pursuit of some new inspiration that I stumbled up on this video recently by a few graduate students at Harvard. I was fascinated by it. It’s pushed me to reconsider a number of assumptions I made (or wonder if I made), and in the best way possible, it’s left me with a few ideas I can’t shake.

There’s a lot there in this video, but more than anything, I’m stuck replaying this line from professor Heather Hill. When talking about the role that risk and failure play in our learning, she comments that, “Teachers who are crafty start to design instruction that kind of responds to that [the impending stumble] ahead of time and highlights it and brings it up, so that kids will make that mistake; it’s called provoking the stumble.”


That phrase, “provoking the stumble,” I love that.

But here’s where I’m stuck: how do we balance the idea of provoking stumbles with the idea of individualizing to help students be successful? Outside of a “you have to know your students” answer, how do we give guidance to those teachers who do know their students well and still struggle to answer this question well?

The way I see it, if we know that students benefit from overcoming challenges, we know that grit is developed in that zone of just right stretch, how can we not begin to invest ourselves in provoking stumbles for our students?

If we’re going to go down this road (and I do think we need to start down this road–or maybe start blazing a new trail in this direction), we have to be prepared with more than a shoot from the him response to parents who, understandably, will question why we are doing this. From one vantage point over a shortened time frame, we are setting students up for failure. But given a longer view, we’re preparing students to know that they can recuperate from failure and overcome adversity.


Part of overcoming our struggles (I won’t put all this on you, but I imagine some will identify with this) my struggles is a healthy, painful realization that I can’t do everything I would like. This isn’t an exclusively academic or professional realization by any means. I wish I could run like I could when I ran cross country in high school. I wish I could stay up (to write this blog, even) late at night without feeling it the next day (or two or three). The reality is that I have limits.

New ones seem to show up each day.

I came across Phil Hansen’s TED talk around the same time I say the “What Makes Good Teaching?” short, and I think Hansen is leading me toward my answer. You see, Hansen is an artist who (spoiler alert) can’t draw a straight line.

Given the choice to simply give up on being an artist, he chooses to overcome a considerable limitation and “Embrace the Shake” so that he can continue to develop his creativity and pursue his calling as an artist. That’s all I’ll summarize; take a few minutes to take in his message here:


I need your help. How do you balance this dichotomy: helping students experience success v. helping students learn to overcome failure? I’d love to hear examples of how you balance both well. The ways that you “set your students up for failure” (which, when done in this spirit, of course, is setting them up for long term success) will help me help teachers, and they will help me think through the parallels for professional development in our school and district.

Please do share. I truly appreciate any feedback you have. Together, we can come up with some great ways to challenge and support students through failure toward success!