How Failure Can Be Good For Your Students

Smart Classroom Management: How Failure Can Be Good For Your StudentsI’ve failed a lot in my life.

And I’m thankful for it every day. Because hidden within every failure is a blessing.

Failure teaches us more than our successes.

It reveals our mistakes and areas needing improvement. It uncovers our carelessness and unpreparedness.

It exposes our hubris and causes us to take a long look in the mirror.

It humbles. It motivates. It offers undeniable proof that we didn’t work hard enough.

Yet, in this day and age, many of our students are denied this wonderful lesson.

Sure, they may be told they need to do better. They may be asked to redo the assignment or go back and finish this or that. But rarely is there finality to their failure.

Rarely are they required to face the plain, hard truth that they fell short.

Your students need to know when their project didn’t meet the minimum standard. They need to know that the deadline passed and it’s too late to fix it.

They need to know their effort—listening, preparation, concentration, attention to detail, etc—wasn’t good enough.

Many teachers, however, gloss over failure, or deny it altogether.

They allow do-overs and extend deadlines. They lower standards and grade on the curve. They accept less than what is required for success in school and beyond.

All for fear of being seen—by themselves or their colleagues—as harsh or uncaring.

But in reality, the opposite is true. You do a disservice to your students by accepting their shoddy work or pretending that everything is A-okay.

When a student thinks they’re doing well but they’re really not, you crush their will to improve. You give unreliable feedback. You hide one thing students absolutely deserve from you: The truth.

When you give chance after chance after chance, happily accepting just about anything and everything, no matter how below par, you remove the intrinsic motivation to do better next time.

You lower the bar. You reinforce more sloppy and careless work and encourage laziness. You cause your students to tune you out and misbehave behind your back. You remove academic urgency and keep your students wallowed in mediocrity.

Now, it’s important to point out that success may look different to different students, particularly in the elementary grades when they’re progressing at different rates.

I’m not suggesting that you assign work that any student isn’t capable of completing successfully. This underscores the critical importance of setting your students up for success before assigning graded work.

Provide one clear objective per lesson. Simplify. Inspire. Storytell. Model. Review. Challenge. Shift responsibility. Then practice, practice, practice. (Click here to learn how to teach great lessons.)

Prove to your students that if they listen and apply themselves, they will excel. Every single one of them.

Do your part well and expect your students to do theirs.

And if they don’t, if they choose to give a poor effort, if they turn in sub-par work or complete a test without care, if they don’t meet the standard you’ve set for them, then give them exactly what they’ve earned.

And make it final. No going back. No second chances (on any one particular assignment). No excuses.

Stick to your guns. Be a teacher of integrity. Allow your students to learn the hard but life-changing lessons now, when they still have time.

One day, they’ll thank you for it.

PS – As long as you provide every student the opportunity to succeed, the prospect of failure is one of the keys to creating a tenaciously motivated class. There is a lot to this topic, which we’ll be sure to cover in future articles.

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21 Responses to How Failure Can Be Good For Your Students

  1. Hannah February 25, 2017 at 9:41 am #

    It seems our attempts to do this have been greatly undermined by the fact that there are no grades in elementary school anymore (at least in my school district). All students are developing on a scale of 1-4. No percentages are allowed on tests. Failure is no longer allowed, and there is no finality, except on the SBAC. The only ones who are being held accountable are the teachers.

    Thank you for the many helpful articles that you post. This is just one area that seems to have been taken out of our hands.

    • Michael Linsin February 25, 2017 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Hannah. It’s a shame.


    • Kristen February 25, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

      Hannah, I teach first grade, and we also have a 1 to 4 report card system. My first grade team has recently developed a scoreboard for our whiteboards on which students place their names at the end of math and reading lessons. At the beginning of the lesson, we go over the learning target and success criteria: what they need to be able to do to get a passing score of 3. At the end of the lesson, they go over an exit ticket or their work with us and receive feedback and their score. Many students are receiving 1’s and 2’s, and they are not happy. This is a beautiful thing. We are seeing first graders taking charge of their own learning and trying harder.

    • Small Town Teach February 27, 2017 at 9:15 am #


      There may be a way to follow your district’s guidelines while holding true to the principles here.

      For example, if a student scores a “1” on an assignment, they have to completely re-do it.

      A “2” or “3”, they only have to redo what questions/problems are wrong

      “4” would be “final” –as close to perfect as you want to hold them to. Maybe they only missed one problem. Maybe they missed two, but as soon as they saw their paper they said “Oh, I explained the water cycle, but I skipped precipitation”–they are able to explain to you their errors as soon as they get their feedback.

      Just a suggestion. This way the “finality” is in producing high-quality work, instead of something like “I failed because I didn’t turn in my book report”

  2. Davina February 25, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

    This is so timely. Mid term reports are due Monday at our school, and I pulled a student aside three times in the past month, encouraging her to complete her work and to turn in assignments. She continued to blow them off. The last time I talked with her I told her that she would probably be failing at mid term if she didn’t turn in more work by the end of the week. Her response was to shrug her shoulders. I so badly want to care about this, but it is not mine to care about, and that is hard for me! I care about the student, but SHE is the one who has to care about whether or not she is doing the work. She will receive a failing report, which is truthful and honest, because it is exactly what she has earned. Once again, the articles you send out help me behave the way I know a good teacher should behave. You help me do the hard things well so that things continue to go well for everyone.

    • Michael Linsin February 25, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

      Hi Davina,

      I’m glad the article cam at the right time.


  3. Kerrie February 25, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

    Reading this from Australia Michael. Very much enjoy all your articles but this one is ringing loud. Agree whole heartedly with all you say. Nothing is sweeter than success after effort.

    best wishes to you.

    • Michael Linsin February 25, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

      So true, Kerrie! Thank you.


  4. Concerned February 25, 2017 at 4:47 pm #

    Unfortunately some teachers are taking this to the extreme, failing entire classes for entire semesters to “encourage” them to work harder during the next semester, regardless of how they had been working, and the grade they had earned. This has led to severe repercussions from parents and guardians, including many being beaten and otherwise punished for the failure. This is beyond how many children punish themselves for failing when they gave it their all.

    I realise that you’re not suggesting that an entire class be failed just because, but please encourage teachers to consider longer-reaching consequences for students, as well as possible reasons for failing. Some don’t have a safe place to study in the first place, and some are all too familiar with the concept of never being good enough.

  5. Kathy February 25, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    I agree with your article completely. In the district where I work students may ask for a redo. This to some means, “0h well, if I fail I’ll do it over!” I’ve heard “fair isn’t equal” too much the last ten years. Parents demand that their child does not fail, but yet there is little effort to help the child be successful the first time. I’m over hearing, “It’s my fault, we have been so busy with ball….” It’s to the point that kids now tell me,”I didn’t have time to study. I had ball practice or a game.” Society has become the “everyone gets a trophy” society. I feel sorry for the students because in real life I don’t get a redo whenever I want. Failure is a valuable lesson. Off my soap box.

    • Michael Linsin February 25, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

      I hear you, Kathy!


  6. Alison Moran February 26, 2017 at 7:22 am #

    Thank you , Michael. We have a culture in this country that does not expect or value mastery. My students from other countries usually come prepared to learn and be respectful of teachers. They know that they are there to learn. Computer games in force this idea of oh well, I can always try again.
    All this said, learning is not final; it is continual. Re-do’s are great (for the motivated student) as the end goal we should have is for them to “get it.” Yet at the same time feeling the pain of failure is one of life’s most valuable lessons, I totally agree.

    • Michael Linsin February 26, 2017 at 7:41 am #

      You’re welcome, Alison. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  7. Sabina yasmin February 26, 2017 at 8:56 am #

    hey Michael.since I signed in for your articles, I have been hooked! u have given me a lot of perspective.I do not feel insecure about my methods as my thoughts have been in a way acknowledged by you 🙂
    having said that, I regret that this article is something that I may not b able to apply.The school I work in,they do not let us fail the children.the bar has been lowered to such an extent that I feel frustrated my kids who have so much potential may actually stop trying.
    Tell me how do I deal with this?

    • Michael Linsin February 26, 2017 at 11:24 am #

      Hi Sabina,

      Within the four walls of your classroom, you can always show/demonstrate/set what or where your minimum standard is and that, despite what anyone else says, your students are expected to meet it. This they can’t take away from you. As for final or report card grades, just be clear to your class that the lowest designation is indeed the equivalent of failure and isn’t acceptable.


  8. Kingsley February 27, 2017 at 6:18 am #

    Thanks. Your article is very factual and helpful to any teacher who want to do what is right.

  9. Tracy February 27, 2017 at 6:38 am #

    Very concerning when our students and “ask for” their automatic 50, meaning they know, there are districts who do not allow students to get a zero on something, the lowest they can get is a 50. These same students take a test with the expectation of a redo. Then they are confused when they show up in college and are denied a do over when the fail. At times, I feel we are codependents in raising students who are not inept because they are not help accountable for their own success.

  10. Krystin March 1, 2017 at 4:22 am #

    Where I teach (Manitoba, Canada) we have a no fail policy until high school. Students know that no matter what they do, even if they get a “failing grade”, they are going on to the next grade. Over the years I have watched the overall motivation decrease more and more and a failure is not truely a failure as there is no consequence for the student.

  11. FREA JADE GAMBOA March 3, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    Thank you so much, Ive gained a lot of informations about your article which will help me a lot on my upcoming interview about classroom management.

    • Michael Linsin March 4, 2017 at 8:46 am #

      Great! Glad to hear it, Frea.


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