Failing to Succeed

I remember my first F. It came my first semester in college, actually: Intermediate Latin with Magister Lisle–a Harvard School of Classics product who I am convinced spoke Latin better than Cicero ever did. I was in over my head, too stupid to drop, and had discovered the joys of dorm parties and unstructured time. The final project was to translate large sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I had difficulty making it through sentences like “He is a farmer.” It went poorly.  In what had been a train wreck of a semester, I also earned a D in a 5-credit section of Intermediate Calculus.

My Freshman Year
My Freshman Year

My institution had a repeat/forgiveness process where you could retake up to two classes, though, and substitute the new grade for your old one. The catch: whatever the new grade was, that was the one that counted. I retook Calculus the following fall, and got my second F. That replaced the D. I decided I wouldn’t even bother with retaking Latin.

Those were not my only failures in college, just two of the most amusing ones. So it was with interest a while ago when I read Edward Burger’s essay “Teaching to Fail” in Inside Higher Ed. It’s an essay that has stuck with me and informed much of my teaching philosophy since. His argument is, essentially, that failure makes us smarter–and is indeed the sine qua non of scholarly work. My inner college freshman rejoiced. DUDE. I FAILED ENOUGH TO BE A FREAKING GENIUS THEN. But, alas, it’s more complex than that. Burger’s description of how knowledge works is one that resonates keenly with me:

every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.

There is an absolutely essential point here for teachers. Failure isn’t something to be stigmatized, but affirmed as a starting point. An important disclaimer: I define “failure” in this sense as having tried, but not come up with the “right” answer/technique/action/concept/whatever. It’s this coming up short that provides opportunity–“failing effectively,” to use Burger’s term. Sir Ken Robinson has observed in his book The Element that “[i]f you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” And a lot of us understand this with our students; we help them to learn from their failures in order to become more confident, creative, and successful. There’s a powerful commercial with Michael Jordan ruminating on his failures that evocatively underscores this point:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

But it’s also important to remember that all of the above applies to educators, too. Our failures have shaped who we are and how we teach, whether we admit it or not. For me, it’s the most important part of my experience–because I have failed at lots and lots and lots of different things in my life.

At the end of the initial semester in my first tenure-track position, I was told by my entire department that I would never be a good teacher, scholar, or colleague.

I failed to keep that job.

Moreover, there are times when:

I have failed to be a good son, a good parent, a good husband, or a good person.

I have failed to remain calm, collected, cool, or constructive.

I have failed at self-control, at self-awareness, at self-confidence, and at self-care.

I have failed in conferences, in interviews, in meetings, and in the classroom.

I have failed to get scholarships, fellowships, awards, and recognition that I have craved.

I have failed to deal with that well.

I have failed to show maturity, moxie, and sometimes even movement.

I have failed over and over again as a writer, a scholar, a teacher, and as a colleague.

I have failed to be sensitive, sober, sensible, or sympathetic when the circumstances have demanded it.

I have failed to pay my bills, to pay it forward, and to pay attention.

I have failed to be on task, on point, on the level, and on time.

I have failed to follow through.

I have failed to learn from my failures.


So when there’s a student in my office with a 55% on the exam wondering how she can possibly do better when she studied “as hard as I could,” I can empathize. And because I have failed, I can give honest and practical advice rather than motivation-poster bromides. When a class activity goes in the tank, I know how to move on to something more constructive, because I’ve been there before. When a meeting dissolves into aimless arguing and pontificating, I can hold my temper, because I’ve been that arguing pontificator before. When I have writer’s block, I no longer feel like throwing a brick through my monitor (well, most of the time), because I know failure isn’t permanent. When I have a shitty day on campus, I know it won’t be as shitty as the day in 2004 when I was told I would never amount to anything in academia and I should pack my stuff.

Learning and knowledge come from failure, but most importantly for us as teachers, so does compassion: compassion for ourselves, for our colleagues, and most importantly for our students. In all of the failures I’ve experienced (and they have been legion), there have been people around me that have helped me to stand back up, dust myself off, and begin to implement the lessons I learned. Many of those people were educators. I don’t think that’s coincidental.

The most powerful way we can educate our students is to be models of what we teach. This is particularly true when we try to inculcate certain habits of mind; for example, I model what it means to “think like a historian” for and with my students. But more importantly, we should model what it means to fail. Because failure should be the beginning, rather than the end, of learning. In using my own failures as the lodestone for my teaching, I am as vulnerable and human as my students. So when I model for them what my scholarship, reading, writing, and critical thinking can do, and show them what I’ve produced, I’m also implicitly telling them they can get to similar places. We should embrace our failures as integral to who we have become, and in doing so show our students that failure only becomes permanent if one allows it. The teacher I am today has his own take on Jordan’s testimony.

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.

And that is why I can show my students how to succeed.

5 Replies to “Failing to Succeed”

  1. This philosophy is why I graduated college and why many more will learn from this lesson. Prior to taking Modern Latin America with you I had never studied for a quiz or test in any college course and often wrote semester project papers within 2 weeks of the end of the semester and always got by with a B. If it was a course that was graded primarily on participation it was an easy A. I was never a student who missed class and I always put forth the effort to engage and participate when I was in there but it never went further than that. I met my match in that class because it was a historical topic to which I had absolutely no prior knowledge in. I just knew that I needed another history course for my endorsement and I knew you were one of the best professors on campus so I was going to take it.

    As always 2 weeks were left to go in the class and I had several assignments that I had fallen behind on and knew I was doomed on the final. After completing the final and checking my grade online I realized that I was a mere 1-2% from passing with a D. I completed a few of the assignments that I had failed to finish and attempt to pass the class, but you denied me the chance to gain the credit I needed because you wanted me to learn this lesson you are speaking about above. You wanted me to learn that “potential unfulfilled doesn’t mean much” and I certainly did.

    Now I have 7 students in my self-contained Behavior Disorder special ed. classroom in Des Moines that have known nothing BUT failure their whole life. They have felt their mentors, parents, and teachers give up on them time and time again. They have been spending their time trying to find new avenues for success and they have continued to fail at those as well. They have been seeing these failures as road blocks instead of speed bumps. I have an acronym that I use in my class I call CLEAR (Clear Last Event And Refocus) I have it placed on a large poster in the front of my room, and I religiously direct their attention to this poster when they incorrectly solve a math problem, make a spelling error, or simply need to be redirected to pay attention in class. This is an attitude that I have developed in my classroom. The students know that it is okay to make mistakes as long as we reflect on it and move on right away.

    The effects of this are already showing. Student’s in self-contained behavior disorder rooms are rarely allowed to go on field trips but a little under a month ago the kids in my room earned an opportunity to see a performance at the Civic Center of Des Moines because they displayed the largest amount of growth in their standardized math and reading scores over the first semester out of the entire middle school! I remember when the principal came onto the intercom to announce the winners I disregarded the message because I figured there was no way that the kids in my room had a chance of earning this reward. When I heard the principal announce that our class had earned the opportunity to go on this trip I was in disbelief. I assumed that administration was letting us attend this trip out of pity or something. It wasn’t until I visited the principal’s office during my planning time that I learned that the kids in my room had made two to three times the growth that the “average” students had made.

    What I didn’t consider in all of this was that the kids who took the exam at the beginning of the year didn’t have hope or self confidence at all. They were used to failing, and they didn’t have high expectations for themselves because they were used to failing so they didn’t score very well on the initial exam. After being in a room where failing wasn’t looked at like a dead end or a road block, they learned that failure was nothing more than a speed bump. They learned that it wasn’t an end, but a beginning like you mention above and that simple change in attitude made all of the difference to those kids, and I firmly believe this is why they have had so much success this year.
    This lesson of failure was learned in two separate ways I had become stagnant and needed failure as a wake-up call. My students had been taught that failure was a dead end not a speed bump. Either way failure has a tremendous power to change someone if it is taught and reflected on carefully. Sadly some people never learn from failure and possibly never will it is up to us as educators to fill the world with people who know how to properly respond to failure so never quit spreading this message.

    Dr. Gannon you are one of my greatest mentors and a man of great integrity and that is something that is growing ever harder to find these days. Thank you so much for the lesson you taught me and I’m sure my Students thank you as well.

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