Failure is Good


The other day I told my class that it was ok for them to fail.

They looked at me wondering what other nonsense I was about to spout toward them. The look in their eyes revealed the beginning of real concern for my well being.

Actually though, I think I’m on to something.

Too often we are afraid of failing. Why is that? Are we afraid that failing will define who we are?

I think the need to always be right is entirely a result of the environment we’ve created in schools. It’s how public schools are set up. Whether that’s by design or consequence of good intentions.

My classroom has a board of success where I post all of the A papers earned by students. I believe in recognizing success – the kind that achieves top marks. These papers have gone home and returned back to the classroom, put in a pile, and then stapled up on the wall. There are so many now that they’re covering one another as the bulletin board has long since filled. I have created a place where the highest marks get rewarded with a place on our classroom wall.

But what about the student that tried their best and never reached that same A grade success? That for whatever reason, achieving what their peers can isn’t possible. Where is the Awesome Effort designation?

I have no board for overcoming difficulty. No ribbon to be proudly worn when a student has achieved what they thought impossible. That should be changed.

I do reiterate to students that if they haven’t gotten an A on every paper, that’s ok too. In fact at the beginning of the year I share with them the secret of success at school, what I call the Holy Grail of learning.

It isn’t about being awesome at everything.

It is about learning from mistakes made and then doing one’s best to not make the same ones again. It’s about learning what works for each of them. It’s about taking risks and raising one’s hand. It’s saying I don’t know the answer or I need some extra help. It’s about being ok with not knowing the right thing to say before anyone else says it. It’s about trying to figure it all out when confusion sets in right at the start of the lesson.

It really is about being ok with getting things wrong.

Each Tuesday when my students get their graded papers, almost all of them open up the envelope I’ve stuffed and they start rifling though it. I watch them peek into the stack of papers and see what grade they received. I expect that if their grades are good, great conversation will commence when they come in the door.

I know when my own children come home with poor grades, I’m definitely not applauding their effort. I see it as failure. Not good. I’m part of the problem too.

If you haven’t already done it, it’s time you make extra effort to encourage your classroom to be a place where failing is ok.

Because where else will failing be ok? It’s definitely not at school. We’re not set up to allow discovery to be determined by the timeline in which a student learns. Each student is different, it goes without saying, and therefore each learns both differently and at a different point. Just look how we approach state testing – all taking the same test, on the same day, in the same way.

If we don’t encourage some failure there are consequences. If we don’t take chances then slowly the fear of failure will overpower any future desire to try something new, to try something that hasn’t been tried before.

And isn’t the bigger question what our students have learned?

And isn’t a more important question what they’ve learned about themselves?

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