How To Teach Students That Failures Are Just Learning Experiences

FAIL: First Attempt In Learning
FAIL: First Attempt In Learning

I have a fear of failure.

For this reason, I am meeting every Thursday morning with a mastermind group to help me determine the direction I’m going to take this summer, and possibly over this next year. The group is lead by a small home-based business owner I’ve worked with and trusted since 2005. The leader’s company hosts this website, and has taken very good care of me, technologically, since I stopped leasing my own servers. This group is comprised of six other women who are wanting to reach specific goals. We have been meeting once a week to discuss our progress, ask questions, and seek support from one another.

One of the questions we asked ourselves today is:

Have we noticed any self-sabotage this week?

If you’ve ever taken on a big project, like planning out an entire year of lessons, or organizing the Honor Society induction ceremony, and found your self doing the dishes or dusting instead, you know what I’m talking about. Somewhere in our subconsciouses, we think, “Wow. This is a huge project. I could totally write terrible lesson plans that all my students will snore through, or fall on my face right in front of all those parents. So if I do the dishes now, I won’t have to think about how I’m going to fail.” When we fear failure, we tend to find ways to avoid it.

As I listened to the question and the answers, I realized that I frequently sabotage my efforts to write a book. I’ll start working on my plot — and then get sidetracked with Facebook, unpacking books and putting them back on the shelves in my new home office, holding extensive conversations with my children, planning how we’re going to renovate the flooded areas of our house. The list goes on.

Whenever this happens, I realized, is when I start feeling like my writing won’t be good enough — my plot will be boring, my characters flat, and the whodunit obvious. I have wanted to write a book since I was in 7th grade, and this self-sabotaging behavior has stopped me every single time. I’ve worked my way through college instead of writing a book, written a slew of newspaper articles instead of writing a book, started a business instead of writing a book, become a teacher instead of writing a book, unpacked a multitude of boxes every single time we’ve moved instead of…. you get the idea.

None of the things I chose to do was wrong. I’ve become successful in each of them: I’ve graduated from college, won awards for my newspaper writing, served more than 300 business clients from all over the world in my web design and hosting company, have been rated highly effective in my teacher evaluations for the past two years, and was nominated for Teacher of the Year in my district two years ago. I’m no slacker.

But I still haven’t written that book!

The other ladies in the mastermind group all talked about how they sabotage their own efforts, as well. It seems we’re all in this boat together.

We all feel like we’ve tasked ourselves with eating an elephant, and we get overwhelmed at the prospect, so we go find something easier to do, like giving birth without an epidural or getting a root canal.

And then I realized: We’re adults experiencing self-sabotaging, fear of failure issues. We’re old enough to recognize it, to realize that failure is just a stepping stone to greater understanding, to know better, and seek solutions.

How much more overwhelmed are our students when we ask them to do tasks that seem huge to them? They haven’t been alive long enough to realize that “failure” is just a learning experience, and in some cases, their families haven’t learned this yet, either.

It doesn’t sound like much to me to ask my students to write a paragraph. But to a 12 year old, that might seem like standing before an elephant with a knife and fork in hand and wondering if one should start at the ear or the toe. Or maybe standing before a gigantic smorgasbord with a tiny saucer and wondering if one should start with a salad, dive into the meats and vegetables, or head straight for the chocolate. Or the student may just be thinking that he’s going to get it “wrong” anyway, so why should he even try.

During my mastermind phone conversation, I started wondering how I’ve gotten myself past that initial fear of failure that leads to self-sabotage on other projects, like building websites, cold-calling a potential client, or standing up in front of my first classroom ever full of students.

The answer is the punchline to the joke:

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

For me, that means I need to take baby steps. Plan the major plot points in my book, and then work through one scene at a time. When that inner voice starts telling me that my writing in crap, that I’m going to fail, I need to tell her to shut up. And then I need to keep writing. I can always go back when I actually have the book written and make it better. I have also invited some people to be beta readers, so knowing that I owe them a draft of my first chapter is motivating me to get it done. Setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART!) goals for each day will help me eat that elephant, metaphorically speaking.

As for my business idea, that means I need to take one small step at a time, do that step very well, and then move to the next one. I do need to plan where I want to be in 5 and 10 years, but I don’t need to worry about getting there today. I need to do today’s work and do it well.

For my students, that means I need to share this story with them. Share my struggle with them, and then share my SMART goals strategy, and help them develop their own. Help them see how they can use that system for any project that seems overwhelming, or for which they have a tendency to self-sabotage. I need to be that voice who tells my students that they’re NOT going to fail, that they are simply going to learn what doesn’t work, so they can do what does work. I need to be their cheerleader. I need to recognize when they are self-sabotaging, and help them develop coping strategies. I also need to realize that they are not throwing a paper airplane across the room in the middle of the introductory paragraph to bother me, but because they are probably self-sabotaging…

That’s when I need to remind students that we only need to worry about one step at a time. That’s when I need to refer to our SMART goal strategy, which can be as simple as deciding what needs to be done and then creating a checklist of steps that need to be completed before moving on the the next one. This can be a simple checklist for writing a paragraph. If you’re students are working on a longer project, like writing an essay, then a checklist divided across several days might be in order, accompanied by a rubric to show what the final essay should look like.

SMART Essay Checklist
This is an example of checklist I produced for my students to use at the end of an essay writing project. I had already graded their brainstorming, drafting, revising and final draft efforts.

As a teacher, you can print up a checklist for the students ahead of time, work with them to create their own checklists, or download the checklists I’ve created. Download the Excel version if you want to modify the checklist, or the PDF if you just want to grab the file and print it.

[prettyfilelink size=”11 kB” src=”” type=”xls”]SMART Checklist Excel[/prettyfilelink]

[prettyfilelink size=”57 kB” src=”” type=”pdf”]SMART Checklist PDF[/prettyfilelink]

You can help your students through this process by recognizing when a student is self-sabotaging, even when they don’t, and then helping them take just one bite of that elephant, instead of turning around and poking little Johnny in the eye.






About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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