Teaching Students (and Parents) It’s OK to Fail

12308541_10153295110860885_1775568096804738743_nby Randi Skaggs

I’m a mom. I get it.

When I see my kids struggling, I want to jump in and save them. I want – on some primal level – to shield them from any amount of pain or discomfort the world might throw at them. I want to build a wall that will repel any of the painful, embarrassing, or depressing experiences I had to endure as a kid. I want them to look back at their childhood and remember only happiness.

And that’s how many of our students’ parents feel. They love their child so much that when they see a “D” on Infinite Campus or find a detention slip to sign or hear from their child that their paper wasn’t one of the ones chosen for the bulletin board, their mama and papa bear instincts come into play.

As a teacher, this is incredibly frustrating. We already have so much on our plates. The idea of trying to explain to a parent how the grading scale or make-up work policies function, telling them all the steps we took before a detention was assigned, explaining that there’s only so much room on a bulletin board and over 120 students – this all takes precious time and energy that many of us simply do not have.

So last year, I stopped. I stopped explaining everything over and over again. I stopped trying to appease parents and make them understand. I stopped worrying that I would make them angry. I stopped justifying school procedures or grading scales. I simply stopped.

Instead, I decided to talk to parents about the value of failure.

My students learn early on that failure is our best friend. I tell them that we will try new and difficult things in my language arts class, and if they never fail, that means they aren’t pushing themselves. I pepper my walls with quotes from famous people about failure like Kid President’s “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re normal.”  When I make a mistake – an accidentally omitted word on my PowerPoint, for example – I point it out, correct it, and talk about how easy such a mistake is to make. When a student gives a wrong answer, I applaud their effort and say, over and over and over again, “That mistake is proof that you’re trying new and difficult things!”

What does this look like on a daily basis? When we do our grammar study, and a student tries something that doesn’t quite work in her sentence, I celebrate it. “Yes, that’s excellent that you’re trying to use semicolons in your writing! Can you rewrite that on the board and we’ll see why it doesn’t quite work in this situation?”

She’ll write it on the board, and the class will evaluate it and decide that she’s not joining two independent clauses, therefore a semicolon doesn’t work. Their remarks will be kind and helpful, and she won’t feel ridiculed. Then she’ll rewrite part of it and fix it.

Mistakes, even outright failure, are part of the process – not something to hide. And the student has learned to be tenacious, not discouraged, to keep trying to find the right answer or solution. Creating a classroom culture where students are not ashamed of failing, where failure is not merely tolerated but celebrated – this takes time and effort and practice. Something I’ll explore and explain in a future entry, for sure (but you can check out the resources at the end if you’d like to get a jump start).

I believe that this theory should apply to other areas of school life, too. If a student leaves his lunch at home, he can eat school lunch that day. Will he be disappointed that he can’t have that slice of leftover cake he was looking forward to? Yes, and maybe it will help him remember to check for his lunch the next morning.

When a student makes a bad decision, gets a warning, then continues to make bad decisions until the detention has been assigned, serving the detention will help them develop self-control and self-regulation.

When a student doesn’t put a lot of effort into an assignment and consequently doesn’t see their work displayed, they’ll learn to give their best effort next time.

If a student forgets to do homework and consequently gets a zero, they will learn to make their homework a priority.

Those are all very debatable blanket statements will a lot of conditions, mind you. You must have a concrete, fair, transparent behavior policy so students know how to avoid detentions (while still having some wiggle room for minor mistakes). You must have a fair make-up work policy so after a student sees a zero in the gradebook and witnesses how it hurts their grade, they can turn the same work in late for most (or all) of the credit to see how fixable that problem is.  If you’re a teacher who throws out detentions for minor infractions or never takes makeup work, you’ve created a culture of despair, keeping students from ever wanting to correct their mistakes, but that’s my next blog entry…

So, assuming your policies are fair and transparent, and you’ve built in room for students to fail, not just academically but also behaviorally, there is quite a lot of value in the logical consequences that students will endure.

As I explain to my students’ parents (and to myself as a parent when my own offspring struggle in school), our job as educators is not just to prepare students for the academic knowledge they must acquire. Our job is to prepare them for the slings and arrows of the real world, to learn how to handle disappointment and keep trying. Just as incorrectly using a semicolon the first time shouldn’t stop a student from ever trying to use a semicolon again, seeing a dip in grades due to poor/missing work should teach a child – on a minor scale – how to be the kind of adult who can accept responsibility and remain steadfast when things get rocky in their lives. Because, as we all know, those days will come.

So, rather than reiterate the homework policy for the 100th time or rationalize how I gave a student the required 5 agenda warning marks before assigning a detention, I’ll talk to the parents about goals for their child.

Every parent wants their kid to grow up and be happy and successful. Every parent wants their kid to be independent and capable. How will they get there if we don’t teach them how to handle disappointment, how to accept responsibility, and live with the consequences of their actions on a small scale?

It’s hard to watch your kid cry their eyes out because they forgot to do their homework one night and their grade instantly fell from an A to a C. But letting them sit in that sadness, to learn how to cope with that emotion, and then formulate a plan to make things right – isn’t that expertly teaching them how to navigate the workforce one day when they miss a deadline and their boss is peeved at them?

I found that the parents I spoke to really responded well to this. It was no longer “parent vs. teacher,” it was us on the same team with the same goal of lovingly but firmly preparing their kid for the world ahead.

And, best of all, I began to witness students become more responsible, more capable, and more confident. They went from being the crying 6th grader who said they had no idea I assigned homework to the calm 6th grader apologizing for not doing it and getting a makeup copy to, finally, the 6th grader who turned their homework in regularly. They had faith that they could handle whatever the day had in store for them, ready to learn from their failures and keep on trying.


The Three R’s of Logical Consequences
Punishment vs. Logical Consquences
Failure is Essential to Learning
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, PhD

Categories: #ForwardBloggers, Notes from Forward

Tagged as: