Why It’s Okay To Let Your Students Experience Failure

Why It's Okay For Students To Experience FailureBecause we care.

This is why it touches our heart to see our students upset or crestfallen. This is why when they bomb a math test or bury their head in their arms over another behavior regression, we seek to soften the blow.

We engage them to talk it out, to see the silver lining, to put it in their rear-view mirror. We tell them that it’s going to be okay, that we all make mistakes, and that it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

We’ve become so conditioned to easing the burden that it has become part and parcel to the job. It’s expected, which is why you see teachers all over campus, in and out of the classroom, huddled with students, lifting chins, assuaging guilt, and making it all better.

We tell our students what they should think and how they should feel. We downplay their downfalls. We frame in the most positive light.

But in doing so, critical life lessons are lost.

The truth is, our students are far better off when allowed to experience their mistakes, failures, and defeats. They’re better off when left to stew, to ponder where they went wrong, and to gain strength from their disappointment.

You see, when we ease their burden, when we redefine for them their failure to prepare for the test, to learn the material, to follow the rules, to listen to the instructions, to treat others with respect . . . lessons are never learned. And the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

We do our students a disservice by interfering with the normal, human, and energy-producing powers of regret. We snatch away their creativity. We weaken their determination. We undermine their ability to overcome obstacles.

We owe it to our students not to minimize failure, but to allow them to feel it. For these feelings, these churning, sinking, aching feelings of disappointment are the impetus they need to learn from their mistakes.

They are what cause them to say, “No more, never again!”

To help your students grow in character, maturity, and independence, to help them improve their behavior, motivate their work habits, and encourage healthy self-reflection, you have to allow them to experience failure.

You have to expose them to the truth of where they are, both behaviorally and academically, in order for them to climb their way out.

A meaningless ‘C’ when they deserve an ‘F’ is not only dishonest, but it’s harmful. And so is telling them how well they’re doing when in fact they’re not doing well at all.

This doesn’t mean you’ll withhold praise or swallow your desire to encourage. It only means that you’ll offer your words artfully, based on the truth, and after your students are granted the dignity to know and experience when they have failed.

Now is the time, when they’re young and impressionable, to learn the lessons that will save them from great and future hardship. Now is the time to fail spectacularly, to learn from their mistakes, and to grow strong and resilient.

Now is the time, when the stakes are low, to build the fortitude needed to overcome that closed door, that letter of rejection, that loss of job. For every time you soften the blow or mask the truth, you make their future murkier and more difficult.

Amid the backdrop of a celebrity culture run amok, amid the bombardment of both a warped view of success and an undersell of what it takes to succeed, they need you now more than ever.

They need the truth now more than ever. They need kind and faithful accountability now more than ever. They need your gentle touch, your honest words, and your willingness to allow for private self-reflection.

They need to experience failure now, in the safety of your loving guidance, so that it doesn’t crush them in the future.

So that instead, they’ll rise to their own two feet, face the inevitable disappointments to come with grace and determination, and blossom into compassionate, contributing citizens of the world.

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11 Responses to Why It’s Okay To Let Your Students Experience Failure

  1. Margaret July 6, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    I am so glad you wrote this. The school I previously taught in had what was called a Pupil Progression Plan which said no grade could be given below a 60 (even if they didn’t bother to do the work). Showing them a line of zeros usually got a student’s motor going, but even though the 60s were a failing grade, they just didn’t have the same push. This simply taught them to only do what you have to and get by with it. Not sure who was the bright person who thought up that strategy but I’d love to tell them how detrimental it is.

  2. Doug Campbell July 8, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    I love this, Michael. There is too much of a trend these days for teachers, parents, and leaders to try to make things as comfortable as possible for students. This should not be the goal. The goal should be to toughen them up for the future.

    Doug (withoutanger.com)

    • Michael Linsin July 8, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Thanks Doug!

  3. Travis January 24, 2014 at 4:54 am #

    9th or 10 th paragraph:
    I think it should be “impetus,” not “impedance.”

    • Michael Linsin January 24, 2014 at 7:25 am #

      Thank you!

  4. Rejeania Brown June 16, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    I agree with you if you are discussing the typical happy-go-lucky student who rarely experiences failure. How about those students who experience failure constantly? Those students who have been raised and trained that failure is as an acceptable option. Therefore, another teacher in their lives to allow them to wallow in failure in order to “feel” it will be ineffective. They already know what failure feels like so what should a teacher do? I agree with you that running to their aid every time they fall won’t help them be responsible and resilient; however, how can a teacher sleep better at night know that they are failing yet again?

    • Michael Linsin June 17, 2014 at 6:27 am #

      Hi Rejeania,

      Empowering all students to succeed is the point of the article. Respectfully, if you get a chance, reread the article. I’ll think you’ll find your answer. If then you disagree, that’s okay too. 🙂


    • Carla March 27, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

      This is an old thread, but for anyone who is still pondering it, I wanted to share what has worked for me.

      I have had great success with students by teaching them how to respond to mistakes, long before “failure” ever happens. I teach them about how effort makes you smart (cf the book or Ted Talk Mindset/Carol Dweck) and struggle helps you learn and you can’t truly master something until you have found all the mistakes (cf the book or Ted Talk The Talent Code). So then we celebrate mistakes “How fascinating!” (cf Benjamin Zander on Poptech, the one with the teenager playing the cello, where B.Z. talks about “one buttock playing”). We create a culture in which mistakes are valued and questions about what you don’t yet understand don’t prove that you are dumb, but rather are a gift to the community that actually make you smarter. Somewhere in there, because my subject is level 1 foreign language, I also teach them about The First 20 Hours (Ted talk) that they are likely to feel pretty dumb in the beginning of learning something new because they know that they don’t know anything, but if they hang in there, it can start to feel better in as little as 20 hours. I find that in this atmosphere, as the challenges get tougher, grades go up because students just try harder, with the shame of making mistakes having been lifted.

      I might also add for someone who is trying to learn any new habit, the book The One Minute teacher had a great approach to failure. You create a One Minute Goal, and when you fail you, allow yourself a full 30 seconds of regret and wallowing in the pain before reminding yourself for the next 30 seconds why you chose the goal and how great it will feel when you succeed. In this way, you deal with failure directly without allowing it to define your future. As you prepare for each opportunity, you end up spending a lot more time on reminding yourself why the goal is important to you and how good it will feel to succeed –> motivation not to give up trying. This process helps to develop a habit of success when you start with desirable and achievable goals.

  5. Melinda November 3, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I LOVE your site/ philosophy. Seriously, I read & reread your posts like I read my bible. It really has transformed my classroom.

    I am a little insecure that maybe I am going overboard with this article and would love your opinion. I have two students (third graders) who never ask for help, don’t really listen to lessons, and don’t use their classmates as resources either. They turn in incomplete work/ half-hearted assignments. I know it’s because they struggle with reading. However, they are not trying or using the resources provided in the classroom for help. They are not asking for help either.

    Is it okay that I am no longer offering my help if they don’t raise their hand and ask for it? I am also not redirecting them when they are just sitting there doing nothing during group/ independent work. I just give time updates to the whole class.

    I also just started having them take home their assignments to be signed by their parents when they fail/ don’t complete assignments.

    I was just wondering if you think we are on the right track, or am I going to far by not offering help/ redirecting their off-task behavior?

    Thank you so much.


    • Michael Linsin November 4, 2014 at 7:29 am #

      Hi Melinda,

      I’m glad you like the website! You have to be a bit careful here. The answer is yes, but with a few caveats. Non-participation and off-task behavior should fall under your classroom management plan and therefore should be enforced. Also, remember one of the key cornerstones of Smart Classroom Management is to create a learning experience all students want to be a part of. It’s the combination of your relationships, cool lessons, humor etc. combined with accountability and expectation that your students do their part that motivates students to want to learn, participate, and be an active part of the class. If any of your students are just sitting there unmotivated, then you’ll want to take a closer look at this area of your teaching/classroom. I’ll be sure to cover this topic more in the future.