Teachers Should Fail Too!

I am once again at a conference, yes I live a charmed life, this time it is a conference put on by my province’s teaching association for first and second year administrators. Our keynote this morning was Dr. Robert Marzano and he spoke at times about teacher supervision. It was refreshing to hear someone speak about how the supervision or evaluative process could be used for teachers to try new things and to gain feedback while doing so. I immediately thought of a couple of teachers on my staff I would love to work with, assisting them by supervising a lesson during which they tried something wild, and then the two of us reflecting after (or during) the class. This idea made me think about my last post, and about how we want to start motivating our students to welcome mistakes and to grow from their mistakes. I think we need to send this message to our teachers as well.

Risk taking by our teachers is going to be an important part of challenging our students in the future. If we are going to have our students engage in exercises that cause them to struggle, we are going to need our teachers to create lessons that provide students with struggle. I spoke about that last time, but what I realized is that we also have to instill that mindset in our teachers. We have to urge our TEACHERS to go out and fail as well. We have to inspire our teachers to try to create lessons that even we aren’t sure will be successful. We have to urge them to push the envelope, and if done properly, they will be bound to crash and burn from time to time. When they do, we need to be there to thank them for their efforts, to praise them for their courage and to help them back on to their creative and experimental horse.

I was thinking that introducing this idea needs to happen in the interview process for every new teacher we hire. How freeing would that be, to be sitting across from your future boss and to hear them say “We want you to FAIL!”… well maybe not, but you can imagine it would be a comforting feeling to know that your principal expects you to try things and for them not to always go well. For new teachers, everything would be new, so knowing it is ok for things to go poorly might put their minds at ease.

I want any teacher I work with to strive for personal growth in their profession. I want them to feel like they have the freedom to do new and exciting things. I also want our students to know that their teachers care enough about them to be creative and to experiment with lessons. Maybe the most important moment in the process will be when that teacher tries that amazing new lesson, falls flat on their face, and then reflects on that failure with their students. We model so many things for our students, modeling how to properly deal with failure, to grow and learn from failure, that just may be the best lesson we can teach.

13 thoughts on “Teachers Should Fail Too!

  1. It would be nice if there were more ways to let teachers fail in “safe” ways. Ways that didn’t end up hurting students. I think it is ridiculous to assume that absolutely every lesson a teacher does with their students is going to be perfect. There are lots of opportunities for teachers to experiment and try things out and if it doesn’t work? Well, have a back-up plan, just like if you were using technology.

    Teachers should recognize that the only improvement that will come into their teaching is when they try out new things.

  2. This is such an amazing post Jesse. As a third pre-service teacher, I remember preparing for my first teaching experiences absolutely TERRIFIED of my lesson not turning out the way I had planned. I would be sick to my stomach and so nervous, because I didn’t want to fail. So in general, I kept my lessons on what I would call the safe side, but guess what–they were BORING. Thankfully I have had great education professors in the last few years that have been very open about the fact that as beginning teachers we are going to bomb lessons. Its inevitable. And it’s okay. So why not try something a little risky, with great potential outcomes? What matters more than falling flat on our faces is our ability to pick ourselves off the floor and reflect on what didn’t work and what we can do to improve that. Taking risks in the classroom to try new things can be extremely rewarding for not only us as educators, but even more so the students. Students want and need to be engaged, they want to try new things, they want to use technology in their learning and they need a variety of teaching strategies more than ever to suit their learning styles. We need to be open with our students and let them know we are trying new things. Not only will this let them know that these new things might not turn out, but it will get them excited for what’s to come. I think it is very important for education professors, teacher supervisors, and school administrators to make it known to their teachers new and old, that risks are GOOD, and failing happens. I think with more teachers willing to take risks, the more our students will reap the rewards.

  3. I agree that in a way we want teachers “to fail”. There needs to be two pre-requisites to that in my opinion . Number one I believe failure is o.k. when teachers are taking risks. For example if we ask our teachers to take on new things like technology and differentiation they need to do know that it is o.k. for them to fail since we are pushing them out of their comfort zone and trying new things. The second would be as a way to grow and learn. As you mentioned in your post. At times in order to succeed you need to fail.
    In my opinion this idea or acceptance of failure needs to be communicated clearly. I have heard of cases where once you take away accountability some teachers apply that to areas that it was never meant to be applied to.
    Yes I am a big believer in growing and learning from failures as long as everyone is working together with growth being the ultimate goal and purpose.
    Thank you for sharing

  4. As a classroom teacher for 30 years I have learned that if I only teach within my comfort zone the students don’t move forward. I have to let go and push them to teach me at times. Sometimes the students find problems that I can’t solve as a tech teacher and then I show them how to reach out and find people on twitter who can help us. And sometimes we have to give up because the problem can’t be solved. So WE fail–I think the students enjoy the realization that failure happens and once they realize that learning begins. The hardest part of teaching is leading a student based classroom–it’s the letting go the control that makes it hard. I keep things structured but not everyone ends up in the same place and in the same way. This really requires a lack of fear on my part and the students. We are a 1-to-1 Computing school with every student from grades 6 to 12 having their own computer and keeping 24-7. It really has changed the way I teach, think and prepare for my classes. And I’ve failed along the way and survived. Thanks for sharing and keep pushing forward–I’ve worked for only 2 principals in 30 years and they have been excellent–Good Luck!

  5. Excellent post. I wonder if the clear communication of our want and willingness for teachers to take risks is most effectively done through our own practice of taking risks. Modelling is one of the most important things that teachers can do for students, and I think the same holds true for school and district leaders. There is no feeling quite like walking the plank at the front of your ship, and then feeling the saw cutting behind you when the sharks circle below. The best way to get rid of these is to model risk-taking, and also to model saying “that didn’t go so well” if it doesn’t work out, and move on!

  6. Couldn’t agree more, since there’s not a great teacher I’ve known who didn’t take risks on the way to becoming great or continue doing so after achieving greatness. And it’s great for morale and school culture when people know they can make mistakes and live to tell about them. Provided, that is, those mistakes aren’t made haphazardly AND there are structures and supports in place to ensure people learn from those mistakes and improve their practice as a result. All too often, unfortunately, teachers are so isolated that they’re unable to pinpoint their mistakes, let alone correct them. That’s why I’m such a big proponent of classroom coaching. It’s also why I recently shared a practical troubleshooting plan for teachers in my Teacher Magazine blog post, From Classroom Chaos to Control: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coach_gs_teaching_tips/2010/10/going_from_classroom_chaos_to_control.html

  7. Maybe it’s because we view it as failure, rather than an experiment in learning. The scientific approach presumes that the first mega number of times the experiment is attempted, there will be failure, and subsequent adjustments until the goal is achieved. If we approach the classroom experience in the same way, for both teachers and students, we foster the growth mindset to which Jesse is referring.

    While we were sitting at a conference on assessment, I shared with him that I had stumbled into a response to a student’s question that ended up having an enormous impact on my classroom culture. The student had made a mistake with a math question that was very representative of a typical misconception. Instead of being disheartened that, once again, someone had not “learned”, I got quite excited. I thanked him profusely for making that mistake, and asked him, would he please explain what was going on with his thinking that lead him to that answer. I wanted to understand his messed up little mind. He walked me through his process, and we discovered together where the misconception was. And it was like magic. Suddenly, students were competing with each other to tell me about their crappy answers, and having me explore with them what was going on in their brains. They were fascinated that I could “diagnose” where the gap in their thinking was, and it became fun. I was better than a cheap palm reader at the carnival.

    So, bring on the faulty thinking. That’s way more interesting than the right answers.

    As for teachers – they’re a tougher crew to get comfortable with making mistakes. I think for them it’s about share and share alike. They’ll let me see their good, bad and ugly if I tell them about mine. I’ve often shared some serious low points in my career so I could get teachers to open up and feel comfortable with me. I tell them how sick I was the day I realized my report card comments were thinly disguised fictions because I had relied so heavily on test marks to tell the story, or the time I found out I didn’t know it all (or even very much) because I couldn’t answer a student’s question about why we add the opposite when subtracting integers. Quid pro quo.

  8. Somehow the kids at my school are afraid of making mistakes, at least by the time I get them. Although I know the teachers in my school don’t ridicule kids for making mistakes, how our inquiry model of education requires them, somehow the kids still learn that failure is not acceptable by the time they get to high school.

    Something is fundamentally wrong with an education system which discourages making mistakes, the best learning tool.

  9. It is great that you wrote this post today. I am going to be sharing it with a teacher at my school. This is her first full year of teaching and has to have an evaluation. It was clear that she was nervous and I tried to tell her that it was not going to be an evil process but a useful one. I explained to her that she was to expect feedback, but any teacher, regardless of experience, can always use some feedback.
    This seemed to put her at ease, but still. It is a travesty to the educational system that this process is viewed as punitive or attacking rather than collaborative. This is something that we need to change.

  10. The willingness to take risks must begin at the teacher preparation level. With mandated cutoff scores on teacher examinations and grade point averages required for graduation and certification, the focus of teacher education programs is getting students through the program and certified by the governing authority in a timely manner. Consequently, faculty structure curricula so that students are able to pass their teacher exams (teaching to the test), and are reluctant to model the risk taking or experimentation in their own classrooms, exhibiting a “play-it-safe” approach to their curriculum and instruction.

    Students, in turn, are intent on insuring they maintain the grades necessary to graduate. Often, the principal expressed consideration of students in a teacher-preparation classroom is “What do I need to do to get an A” instead of “What will I be challenged to learn.”

    Since many new teachers initially teach as they were taught, the process of experimentation, reflection, and learning must be established before they arrive in the primary or secondary classroom. If we hope to see an approach to K-12 education that fosters creativity and experimentation by classroom teachers, it must begin in the teacher preparation programs, where instructors should model the same desire to take risks, experiment with curricula, and learn from personal failures.

  11. Pingback: View every FAILURE as an EXPERIMENT in LEARNING. | Teach like your hair is on fire

  12. Pingback: Learning From Success Works Too | The Principal of Change

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