When Teaching “Fails”
We all experience failure in our lives, including in our roles as instructors in postsecondary classrooms. Lessons and assessments don’t always render the results we hope for, but they can serve as essential “teachable moments” as we strive to become stronger teachers. In this post, we explore our approaches to responding to “teaching failures” – to both understand why they happened and explore some strategies for both processing these failures and responding to them.
Seeing Failures as Opportunities
We often see our favorite teachers as “perfect.” Little do we know that the effective teaching we experience has actually emerged from teaching failures. When we make mistakes in any aspect of life, we can take two paths – ignore the mistake or learn from it. We may choose to ignore the failures because examining them feels painful, we lack motivation, or we blame others or the circumstances associated with the event. However, when avoiding these moments, we lose an opportunity to improve our teaching. The first step to learn from our failures is to recognize we’ve made them and then see them as opportunities for our own growth. Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, demonstrates the power of believing you can improve after failure with her renowned research. This begins a process of four steps that have been helpful for us in learning from our teaching failures.
Four Steps Toward Learning From Teaching Failures
Recognize Failures: Pay specific attention to noticing what isn’t working in your teaching. Strategies to notice failures include collecting regular feedback from students, observing circumstances you see as ‘unusual’ happening repeatedly, and carefully analyzing assessments for what they may say in relation to your learning outcomes. As teachers, we will make many kinds of failures. Though some may be less significant than others, each can be a learning opportunity.
Invest Time in Reflection: After recognizing your failures, intentionally think about what made you consider it a failure. Why did it happen? What was the primary cause? What were the contributing factors? What about what happened was (or seemed) wrong? We find doing some writing in response to the above questions as a helpful tool for our reflection. Then, begin to think about a course of action.
Respond with Action: Now, apply what you’ve learned to become a stronger teacher. Respond by thinking about your failure example. What practical steps could you take and how you will decide if your decisions result in a better experience? Research to see how others have approached similar situations. Talk with other teachers about your challenges. Make a plan and follow through with your class. Then assess how that went and repeat. Here, we’d suggest returning to your learning outcomes as guides throughout your action process.
Overall, Take Care of Yourself: Monitor your responses. Like teaching, this process can require self-confidence and courage. Perhaps this is most challenging and may make you feel inadequate, hopeless, guilty or embarrassed. Be honest with yourself and do your best to see this process as valuable for your growth. Meanwhile, keep a balanced perspective, think about the ‘big picture’ and consider your spheres of control. We’ve found it helpful to ask the following questions: when you decided or determined you had made a mistake, how did it make you feel about yourself as a teacher? Do you find failure more onerous in teaching than in other aspects, i.e. your research or academic work? Think about why or why not. You might find this process helps to reframe how you respond to mistakes across different aspects of your life.
Using our steps as a starting point, fine-tuning your own approach and using it everywhere you find appropriate. Utilize failure as a tool, take risks and learn. Remember this is an effective way to grow as an individual and ultimately a step toward more successful teaching experiences. We also suggest creating meaningful dialogue with a teaching community in your department (and perhaps consider sharing your journey with us at Inside Teaching MSU). Going through this process is invaluable to ourselves, our students, and our community. We all make mistakes, but how are you going to make them meaningful opportunities?
We’d Like to Know: How do you define failure? How do or would you assess potential failures in teaching? What are some techniques or steps you would take to revise your approach and make it more successful? Have you ever tried something while teaching that you expected might fail? Share your responses with us in the comments below.
We’ve selected a few resources to refer to toward strengthening your teaching in response to failures:
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Rachael Eaton is a PhD candidate in Zoology and an Inside Teaching Fellow at Michigan State University. She studies the behavior and ecology of birds in Michigan fruit orchards. She has taught a variety of undergraduate Zoology courses and is part of the Graduate Women in Science Organization.