Superteachers: Dealing With Failure


Some students fail.  Failure happens on speech day when a student doesn’t prepare.  The student hasn’t shown up to class or has shown up but hasn’t paid attention to lecture material, discussion, or application in class.  In these cases, the student doesn’t understand the material we’ve covered in class, or refuses to work as hard as a strong presentation requires.  When a presentation fail happens, it’s painful for everyone involved: the student, the audience, and especially the instructors.

Failure also happens on a larger scale.  Whether it’s a live class or an online class, sometimes, students fail my class and have to retake it again.  More often than not, this “failure” happens when a student gives up and stops working; he or she doesn’t attend class, doesn’t turn in assignments, doesn’t respond to me reaching out to help.  In most cases, a student fails my class because he or she isn’t working hard enough.  If a student doesn’t hold up his or her end of the “education” bargain, it’s obviously difficult for that student to do well.

When I fail at something, I get angry at myself.  I see myself as not measuring up, and I don’t like it.  Since I’m a perfectionist, I raise my standards even higher to meet the challenge using a different approach.  But some of my students, it seems, come from the land of low expectations.  If they fail, it’s because I am too strict or don’t like them, the assignments are too hard and confusing, there aren’t enough hours in the day, etc.  Luckily, only a few of my students have this attitude.  Unfortunately, this is the student population that takes up a lot of my time complaining, protesting, and appealing grades.

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Let’s look at a hypothetical case that happens in classrooms every single day.  Sally Smith is a student in superteacher Professor Taylor’s class.  Sally fails the class.  As a superteacher, Professor Taylor went above and beyond to try to help Sally, but Sally still failed.  Some rules were bent in order for Sally to earn the grade she did, but Sally wants ALL the rules to be bent to accommodate her. Instead of seeing failure as a chance to regroup, rethink, refocus, and try again, Sally sees failure as something that happened to her.  Sally appeals her failing grade to her instructor.  She claims that Professor Taylor doesn’t like her, that some sort of personal vendetta is involved, that the policies in place are unjust and unfair.  Sally appeals the grade to Professor Taylor’s boss and then to the boss’s boss.  During these appeals, Sally tells all kinds of stories about things happening in her home life and distorts the truth about what happened while she was taking the class; all of these efforts have one central focus: to try to talk her way into passing the class.  She speaks to one Dean after another, continuing to pressure someone into changing her grade.  Sally is persistent.  Everyone who meets her or speaks with her explains that if she would have put the same effort into her schoolwork that she’s putting into her appeal process, she would have passed the class in the first place.  Unfortunately, there are students like Sally Smith in every class in every university in every city and state around the country.  And, unfortunately, Sally will always try to talk her way into a passing grade because it has worked for her in the past, and it will work for her in the future.

Where are the people who stand up for failure?  Failure is a good thing!  Without failure, we don’t know what disappointment looks like, what success feels like, what hard work tastes like.  Without failure, we can’t possibly work toward a goal or a dream.

Where are the people who will explain to Sally that failure is a direct result of her work ethic?  Failure and success are not based on external forces; they depend upon the amount of effort a person puts in.

I love Carol Dweck’s ideas on failure in the classroom, and I’m working each day to embody the growth versus the fixed mindset.  Dweck explains in “Helping Students Deal with Setbacks and Failure” that many students don’t link hard work with success.  “It’s much better, Dweck believes, to praise children for effective effort and explicitly teach them that mental skills can improve by persistence and work” (Source).  Dweck shaped my belief that success and failure in school are based exclusively on effort as opposed to someone’s intelligence or those pesky external factors.  So what does this have to do with someone’s mindset?

“From the perspective of a fixed mindset, failure indicates a lack of ability, and therefore a lack of capability or intelligence. People who have a growth mindset, however, view struggle or failure as a natural part of the learning process and an opportunity to improve” (Source).  It’s important that as superteachers, we nurture students in the classroom by pushing them to work hard.  Learning isn’t about getting it the first time, but we’re all so worn down by the fixed mindset that it’s difficult to actually see and teach that way.

If we all had growth mindsets, maybe the Sally Smiths of the world would see failure differently.  And maybe if Sally cultivated a growth mindset herself, the failure wouldn’t even happen in the first place…

As superteachers, how do we encourage students to work hard and to see failure differently?  And how do we explain to the Sally Smiths of the world what failure is and what it means in the education system?


4 thoughts on “Superteachers: Dealing With Failure

  1. When Jim Collins discusses failure in “Good to Great” he describes a room of people who perform an “autopsy without blame”.

    I think “autopsy without blame” is great way to approach students with temporary failures – turning them into learning experiences for future successes.

  2. Hi Alex

    I have been following your blog for a few weeks now, and with every great post I thought “I’m gonna leave her a message just to tell her she’s great”, so here it finally is.

    I studied communications here in Italy and – let me tell you – you are the teacher I would have loved to have – and would have loved to be (no chance to teach around here anyway, so I switched to something else).

    I couldn’t agree more with you, in this post. People dwell on low expectations, they are always blaming someone else and they are always using “but” and “however”, which are just ways to deny what they just said (“I would like to do that, but…”: which means you do not actually like it enough).

    Every time I find myself using these conjunctions, I stop and force myself to re-arrange the sentence so that my example above would sound something like: “Well, I probably don’t like to do that enough”. This way, I have control over what I am saying, and my language doesn’t lie on my behalf.

    When I tried to teach this method to my girlfriend, she found herself using dozens of similar adversative conjunctions (we really have a ton of them in Italian), without even notice she was doing the same old thing with her language: let it lie on her behalf, so that her personal integrity was safe.

    Safe, in life, is not the right place to be, especially when you are judging yourself and your efforts.

    This post really points that out beautifully. Complaining is the national sport in my country. Everybody is just sitting around waiting for someone to change things, and everybody is delegating.

    If you keep delegating you will soon find yourself useless, and the others will feel the same about you.

    We have to be in charge and manufacture the change ourselves. Our language is a good place to start with. If you don’t feel disappointed when you fail, but rather blame external factors such as professors or politicians or the weather (really!), then you are in serious trouble because your language is telling you (and others) that you are not in control of your life, which not only isn’t true, but also makes people around you feel that you are not accountable, that they cannot rely on you. And you quickly become useless to them.

    Well, this is way too long and I’d better quit it. Hope my English was clear enough.

    Again, your posts are great and your classes must be amazing.



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