Some refuse to speak.
Some prefer not to participate.
Some turn red every time you mention their name.
Some are perfectionists.
Others stutter and struggle to put two sentences together in a presentation, when you know for a fact they are brilliant students.
It all stems from a single root: the inability to deal with failure in a society that demands constant overachievement. The fear of what others might say and what friends might think. The terror of feeling ridiculous and exposed.
So what can we do to lighten the load on our students and encourage them to think of failure more positively?
1. Be careful not to overcorrect
It’s no secret—we want students to improve in every possible way. For that reason, we genuinely believe we are doing them a favor when we correct their mistakes. While that is true to a certain extent, it should be measured. Interrupting students to correct them is distracting. It leads them to believe they are continually messing up—which, in turn, might lead to them not wanting to participate at all. Even making mistakes requires having some personal space.
2. Share a meaningful story
All of us have embarrassing or frustrating stories to tell. Moments in which we wanted to scream, run away, or hide until we finally overcame that obstacle. Share those stories. Personally, I often share the story of how I was an epic failure at my first driving exam, or how I wanted to hide in the bathroom and cry after first moving to Istanbul because I couldn’t express myself decently in Turkish. Both stories have a happy ending—I got my license and became fluent in Turkish—and my students always smile and feel inspired because they can relate. If you prefer to avoid talking about yourself, tell a quick story of a family member, a friend, or celebrity.
3. Make fun of yourself and the subject at hand
Incorporating some sensible humor into your class can never go wrong. Being theatrical, playful, sarcastic (with care), and silly can sometimes lead students to realize that you are not an authoritarian figure, rather, a human being who is there to help. A playful environment will allow them more freedom to express themselves without fear, and foster the ability to laugh at themselves. Do this by including fun images on your worksheets, memes on your PowerPoints, giving silly (but relevant) examples or providing humorous dialogs for students to read in pairs. You can also be theatrical in your way of delivering certain parts of your class!
4. Learn something from your students
You are likely to have students in your classroom who know way more about another topic than you do; whether that be music, their own culture, how to use certain technological devices in class, and so on. Get curious and ask: “Do you think you can help me with this device?” or “How do people do this in your country?”. Be curious about whatever they would like to share with you. This works because you are humbling yourself and showing students you are more than somebody who is there to assess them—you are interested in who they are and realize they can teach you something too.
5. Teach students to be fair to themselves
Anytime a student talks negatively about themselves, make sure to address that student individually—or even in open class, if suitable—and ask: “If your own child or best friend were in your position right now, would you be angry at them for something as small as making a mistake in a classroom? Would you bring them down for not being able to get a certain grade or pronounce things a certain way?” The goal is to make students think of themselves with the same empathy as we think of others. We wouldn’t insult our loved ones over small things, so why should we do it to ourselves? Learning is also an act of discovering how to be kind to yourself, and your students should be the first ones to know that.
So What Is the Key To Teaching Failure?
The reason encouraging failure in the classroom is so challenging is because it requires us to open up, relax, and not take ourselves too seriously. This is often difficult for teachers, as we might be under pressure due to massive amounts of paperwork, being evaluated by our superiors, taking care of administrative tasks, correcting homework, or assessing students.
However, sparing some seconds to apply these strategies can help make life easier on yourself and your students. Acknowledging failure and learning how to manage its side effects is one of many gifts education can give us all, regardless of age.
In the end, encouraging others to fail and be ok with failure is all about leading by example. Show your students that you are not always perfect, knowledgeable, and confident. You’ve had to overcome your own obstacles, fight your own battles, face your insecurities, and be embarrassed several times in life before you were able to stand in front of a class.
The secret is that it all starts with you and with that one question you should be asking yourself before inspiring your students: When was the last time you failed?