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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What’s Worse ... Failure or Success?

By Peter DeWitt — April 06, 2015 4 min read
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We should all approach failure with a much more open mind because it is through failure that we gain an opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves.

During a presentation in Kentucky I walked around to tables to listen to the dialogue going on between teachers after I asked them a question regarding meta-cognition and student learning. They had 2 to 3 minutes to engage in dialogue, and my hope was that some would share out to the larger group. After all, no one person is smarter than the collective thoughts of a group.

As I approached a table filled with teachers with my microphone in hand, I asked a teacher if she would share her thoughts with the larger group when we came back together. The microphone was turned off. Within a few seconds she responded, “Only if I’m right.”

Her facial expression and whole demeanor were serious. She didn’t trust that I knew she had positive input for the group, and was insecure about her own ability to answer the question. The exchange was months ago and yet it sticks in my mind today.


Because we, as teachers, go out of our way to say we need students to take risks in the classroom, and yet we don’t practice what we preach because we are concerned about failing in front of our colleagues. If we feel this way...why do we expect students to feel differently? Isn’t it hypocritical to expect differently from them?

I have been very open about my failures. Retained in elementary school, barely graduating from high school, and dropping out of two community colleges before meeting the right teachers at the right time on my very last chance at college. With moral support form my family I was able to move forward and find success...after many sleepless nights, a great deal of insecurity, and the ability to pull my head out of my...well, you know what I mean.

To this day I do not like to be cold-called in an audience but I must practice what I preach so I make it through. In Visible Learning (Hattie) circles, we call that the Pit (Nottingham). When we find ourselves in the Pit, we are surrounded by our own insecurities and we have to find the strength to get through, even if there isn’t anyone within a stone’s throw to help us.

Apparently Success is Just As Scary

In the Teacher Voice Report (2015) by the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA), a group that I work with, 11% of teachers surveyed said they are afraid to try something because they may fail. 11% is a bit lower than I expected. I really thought that there may be more, because many teachers are perfectionists so I assumed many more would be afraid to take a risk and fail.

Basically it comes down to 1 in 10 teachers are afraid to fail. As you read that number you may be the 1 or can easily think of who that 1 may be. We should all approach failure with a much more open mind because it is through failure that we gain an opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves.

What was equally as interesting about the Teacher Voice Report is that 15% of teachers said they are afraid to too successful at something because it may bring resentment on the part of colleagues. The report says, “15% fear peer resentment if they are too successful and one-third appear unwilling to share their success with peers.”

The QISA report goes on to say,

Furthermore, less that two-thirds of staff consider setting yearly goals (which they may or may not achieve) with their supervisor important for their work. It would appear that educators are comfortable taking positive risks in an insulated way (I challenge myself...) but are less comfortable when the risks taken may expose them to the scrutiny of others, whether colleagues or supervisors.

There is little doubt that in this present era of accountability, teachers are probably much less interested in taking risks that others know about because they are concerned that it will end up with a “gotcha,” which is unfortunate because it means that we are all playing it too safe and students are missing out.

But teachers not wanting to share success is not new to the era of accountability. Many teachers do not want to “toot their own horn.” They do not want to be seen as 1-upping their colleagues and do not want to be seen as the highest weed standing tall above all other weeds. We see this a great deal on social media. Teachers talk about how they don’t talk about being “connected” at their own school because they don’t want to be seen as the teachers trying to be better than their colleagues.

In the End

It’s interesting because I always thought failure was scarier than success. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I spent many of my formative years not being very successful and I was tired of being seen as the failure among my peers. However, as I grow older I have come across many teachers who do not want to share their successes.

Isn’t it possible that through sharing our successes we can learn just as much as we do through failure...or are we doomed to always stick to the status quo and not climb our way out of the box? Through sharing our success we can inspire people to aspire to be more, just as long as we do it with humility. Equally, through our failure we can inspire people to come to our rescue and offer us support. After all, the report says that 76% of respondents believe that staff are supportive of one another.

Maybe we should be less concerned with failing and succeeding and more concerned about the learning involved.

Please take a moment to take this very quick (3 questions!) student/teacher voice survey.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.