Four Steps to Failing Better

Written by: Paul Needham, Instructional Coach and Professional Learning Specialist

Four Steps to Failing Better « The Teaching Excellence Program

Every teacher, whether they’re fresh out of TE’s Induction, or a 16-year veteran makes mistakes that impact the environment in their classroom. The trick that successful teachers have learned is how best to learn from these mistakes. In other words, successful educators don’t necessarily fail less than educators that perpetually struggle, they fail better. As you get to know your students you will become more knowledgeable of their strengths and struggles, and you will have good days and bad days in your classroom. At the beginning of the year the bad days may well out-number the good days. However, for the residents of your classroom to meet their collective goals and for you to be excited to go to work every morning, that is a balance that will need to tilt toward good days – and the sooner the better.  Below are four tips you can use to fail better at the beginning of this school year.

Plan to Fail

People that don’t stretch themselves to the limits of their abilities don’t grow. However, people who seek to find their limits, inevitably will. Trying something that you’re not 100% sure that you can accomplish is what allows us to see our areas of growth in the clearest light. To translate that into the classroom you can pick a small part of a lesson (5 minutes or less) and try to make it perfect. What would perfect look and sound like? What would you need to communicate to your students to make it happen? Try it: the things that don’t match your vision are where you need to spend some time getting better. Setting yourself up to try something great and knowing you may fail will give you the strongest picture possible of where you should improve.

View Potential Failures as Challenges

What if a failure wasn’t the end of the world? What if a failure wasn’t the end of anything? The people that struggle most with failures are those who view them as finales. The people who fail best are those that look at failures as challenges to improve themselves and their practice. No athlete has never lost a game. No leader has never lost a follower. No educator has never had a terrible lesson or a difficult interaction with a student. The best athletes, leaders, and educators view their failures and losses as opportunities to reflect on their own practices and recommit themselves to their goals.

Fail Publicly

The more information you have, the more you will be able to determine what caused a failure and the best course of action to keep it from happening again. The more eyes you have on a situation, the better. The people that fail best are those that fail in front of as many people as possible and ask as many questions of those people as they can think to ask. If you know that a lesson may prove difficult because it is the first lab you’re doing in a science class or the first time you’re trying small groups, open your doors. Don’t close them! Ask your coach, grade level chair, or dean to come and observe that day. When things inevitably go wrong, their expert opinion may be the difference between making the same mistake twice or failing better and learning from it.

Fail Less Next Time

In an environment such as a classroom where absolute perfection is rarely – if ever – achieved, a smaller failure is a win. This is very connected to the second point that those who fail view failures as challenges. If a failure is a challenge, it is an opportunity to set a goal for yourself. Set incremental goals to shrink your failures on a week-to-week or even a lesson-to lesson basis. If your second grade bathroom procedure took 20 minutes and you can shrink it to 16 in a week you may not be setting any speed records, but you’ve just saved yourself 3 entire days’ worth of instruction if you take 2 bathroom breaks a day! Recognize a failure, determine an action step that you can take to help alleviate it, and set a benchmark so that you’ll know if it’s working. A series of small wins like this can transform a classroom faster than you would believe – and infinitely faster than if you had simply failed poorly.

Have you had an experience where “failing better” has helped you improve or meet your goals? How do you plan to “fail better” this week?

via Four Steps to Failing Better « The Teaching Excellence Program.


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“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

- John Maxwell

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