The Necessity of Failure and why we need to embrace it

Didn't want to choose the best picture, but rather one that shows my relationship with my son. I would do anything for him and that often means being the heavy trying to teach him big lessons. At the root of it all, Logan is everything I admire, still a semi-blank slate waiting to be filled with magic.

Didn’t want to choose the best picture, but rather one that shows my relationship with my son. I would do anything for him and that often means being the heavy trying to teach him big lessons. At the root of it all, Logan is everything I admire, still a semi-blank slate waiting to be filled with magic.

So what I’m about to say especially feels uncomfortable for me, a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, however, all the more truthful. Failure is necessary and essential in life, for success, and forward movement, which is precisely why we need to make it a part of the process.

In class, we are all concerned with making sure students meet standards and grow as learners, not just for our bottom lines but because growth and movement is what they need to plateau and keep climbing. The big secret that most students fail to hear is that no one gets it on the first try.

Every great success story started with many “failures”, mistakes, and/or errors of judgement. It’s not if we will make them, (because it is a fact that all human beings commit these crimes against themselves regularly) but rather what we do in the wake of their damage?

In my experience there are 3 kinds of people:

  1. Those who easily give up and readily look for excuses like, “this is too hard” and once something isn’t presented as easy, they have no interest. They don’t bother to try because the fear of failure is so great, that they would rather not attempt it and be none the wiser for the outcome.
  2. People who will dip their toe in the water to see if it’s cold, may slowly enter in, but once they encounter a challenge have a hard time getting over it, almost to the point where they won’t try again. Admitting their failure, they just claim to not be good at it and move on to something else.
  3. Lastly are the fearless. Bravely encountering news things and old things, taking chances whether or not the outcome is favorable. Sure frustration exists and they don’t get it right the first time, but they don’t give up. With tenacity, they take what they’ve learned from their errors, store it and use it to be more successful the next time.

We must all strive to be the last kind of person.

As teachers, we are in the unique position of helping young people understand that failure is a part of learning, an important one. When we put too much emphasis on grades or final products, we glaze over the truly important part of the process that suggests that it takes work to get to the product, to get to the knowing.

Scientists know that after they create a hypothosis, there is a good chance that what they think will happen, won’t. It’s how they find answers to all kinds of questions. But why doesn’t this theory transfer to other disciplines and life?

In the writing process, the writer/student understands that nothing is perfect when it first makes an acquaintance with the page. It can be awkward or shy. It requires further introduction and development. It requires multiple eyes and perspectives. As I write this post, I am deleting and rereading and rewriting until it sounds just as I want it to. My students and readers may never actually see me doing it, but it is my duty to tell them I do (and continue to now, after it went live and I recognized typos that needed correcting).

I’m not perfect, no teacher is, no person is.  Frustration and expectations plague my daily life as a teacher and a mother. Holding myself to the highest level of expectations, I often feel ashamed and embarassed when stuff doesn’t work out as I’d like it to.  If I failed to move forward or stopped trying new things the first time I was bad at something, I would have never come so far.

I’ve been quoted as saying in my classroom “I encourage disagreement” – I have admitted to being wrong; I do it regularly. Because I don’t know everything and will likely never know it, but I will fearlessly live in the pursuit of acquiring as much as I can and learning and growing every day, that’s the only way I can teach students the same. We all must live as we expect others to and be the role models kids need.

What I learned in kindergarten:

I once went to read to my son’s kindergarten classroom.  The kids were eager and excited to hear the story and when the teacher started asking questions at the end, all of the children raised their hands. If they weren’t right, they didn’t care, they just raised their hands again and tried until someone got it right. There was no error or shame in being wrong and they all wanted to try. Amazed and a little jealous, I told the teacher that I would kill to have teenagers who acted the same way.  The older we get the more self conscious we become and more the rigid we are in what we think we know. Being wrong has somehow translated into a painful experience that we seek to avoid at all costs.

Today and everyday’s challenge

Today’s challenge is to try something new and relish in the discomfort of not being good at it; it can be an opportunity to learn and master something else and to grow as a human being. What are you going to try? How many times have you had to try to do what you love before you became good at it? More importantly, how do you share your process with those who surround you?

Please share your ideas and anecdotes here.


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I never knew my dad's mother.  She was a teacher in her early years.  I believe that he loved her especially because she tried to protect him from his father.  And, I know that he grew to respect and cherish her love of history and literature, which he passed on to me.  So that was her gift to me.


When I share failures & laugh at myself and try again, my middle school students see me as human, as someone who is 'old' but still loves learning. When I ask them to teach me a computer trick or explain the latest slang they say "you're not like a real teacher right?' Some students feel ripped off when I tell them that I don't know everything or that I'm not a traditional teacher, more of a facilitator, but most kids eventually are able to breathe more deeply, take more risks, accept that failure is inevitable and important & then learn from the failures. I'm most proud of things I teach such as persistence, joy of learning, utilizing our strengths and being open to failure - stuff that doesn't show up on standardized test scores, but matters a whole lot more in learning, well-being and in life.


@DebbieAxiak Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Debbie, I really appreciate it. I think what you are saying makes so much sense. Kids aren't used to having so much authority in their learning. I think they love it once they get it used to it, but it's like every other change, it takes time.


Errors add data. That's what I used to tell my students. So I constructed exams as the tools  of assessment, not ranking. They'd get 10 exams per section of material so they could keep finding out all that they didn't know and then we'd address that. Like your students, Starr, they finally ceased to be distressed by "failing" and opened to the notion of assessment. Since they were required to learn 100% of the information to pass in this particular program, this approach made that possible.


@CarsonCanada What an awesome solution! Kids fear failure and being wrong- they have had many experiences that squash their creativity and even worse, make them reticient about even trying.

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to share a viable solution. I appreciate your thoughts!


I really liked what you are saying about learning. In a traditional setting, the teacher is expected to know everything and have all the answers. In today's world this is not possible or is it right. Students should be being taught to quest for information and be able to find things and do things on their own. This includes struggling a bit along the way if it doesn't go smoothly at first. Teaching them otherwise is doing everyone a disservice. Being a science teacher myself, I loved that you mention the scientific method in your post. In science, you don't get "wrong" answers. Maybe they aren't what you expected (as you stated) but you learn from them and revise the experiments going forward thus learning about whatever you are studying.

To truly show students that struggle is part of learning, there needs to be a cultural change regarding education. Rote memorization must be discarded for deeper understanding. Problem solving and synthesis should trump fill in the blanks. Above all, the opportunity to revise and edit before assignments are graded is essential. That way students understandings, and ability to construct knowledge will be rewarded.

Jasper Sr.


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