School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Teachers and Students Both Can Prevent Successful Outcomes

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 13, 2017 4 min read
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Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.- John Dewey

Fear of failure is often hard to spot. It is a belief that hides deep within. The behaviors we see are often masquerades. Guy Winch, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author, writes about how failing gives rise to disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, regret, and confusion.

...it is not failure per se that underlies the behavior of people who have it. Rather, a fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame. People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration that accompany such experiences but because failing also makes them feel deep shame.

Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad who we are. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being (Psychology Today).

Adults have had years to cover shame, with layer upon layer of behaviors that hide the true source of the reason they will not engage in new ways of thinking or teaching or learning. The behavior on the outside might look like disinterest or defiance or undermining. One might hold a belief that this ‘new thing’ will pass, disrespect the one leading change, be overconfident in the current practice. There are an endless list of survival behaviors. Consider the ‘trash talk’ that may go on between colleagues about another colleague or a supervisor. All of these actually contribute to diminishing morale and eroding excitement about work. The hopes for change a leader may hold can feel it nipping of these behaviors at the ankles.

Introducing the idea of change, which involves risk-taking behaviors and includes possibilities of failure in the process has always existed in schools. We ask students to confront that possibility every day. Yet, as the adults, it is seemingly more difficult and has greater consequences and visibility. Maybe we need to rethink the experience our students are having.

What accompanies ideas for change are the brakes. Sometimes, it is the leader who steps on that pedal, but, most times, change resistance is cultural and it is self-protection that steps on the brake pedal. If the leader steps up and guarantees that the process of change will expect risk taking and will accept some failure along the way, the teacher(s) are more likely to step up too. But, it is not only teachers who may be risk averse. Fear and shame know no bounds. They are human emotions. And they cripple learning and progress.

We accept that children have difficulty managing their emotions. Most discipline that takes place in schools is a result of students’ inability to mediate their feelings. Schools have counselors, social workers, and psychologists to help those that seem to be having difficulty understanding and working with their feelings. Mostly, disciplinary interventions are a response to the behaviors that interfere with learning or the learning of others.

Consider fear of failure as fear of feeling shamed. Shame is not about what we feel it is what we think about ourselves. Adults enter the school building with a set of compensatory behaviors and beliefs that cover their fear of failure (shame). The students enter with a less effective set of behaviors. Adults have had the time to cover their distaste for risk and failure with other behaviors like avoidance, cynicism, disinterest or even disrespect. But students are less experienced with this so they often act out distracting behaviors and beliefs. They express a dislike for a subject or an assignment. They create a distraction by starting an argument with another students, or becoming truant, or falling asleep in class. It is easy for adults to think the behavior needs addressing and it is often that they do. But the root cause can be as hidden for them as it is for the adults.

Understanding more about shame and avoidance will help a leader with both faculty and students. It may also help with one’s own leadership. When leaders understand that the power of fear and shame can bring learning and change to a halt, possibilities for success arise. Understanding the underlying emotions that provoke resistance behaviors that interfere with progress is important in an educational setting. When adults and children work and learn in an environment that supports risk taking and celebrates even the small successes and views failure as an opportunity for more learning, the environment becomes rich and dynamic with teaching and learning. That is what schools reach for...engaged, dynamic, learning environments that invite all to be learners and changers, to be gardeners attending the growth of themselves and each other. Understanding the fear of failure in one’s self and in others is one route to shifting from a culture that embraces the status quo to one that is searching for and reaching new horizons.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.