3 Ways to Redefine Failure

I entered the teaching profession hungry to learn how to be a great educator and ready to become the next National Teacher of the Year! I watched Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, and Dead Poets Society, just to name a few. I was ready! And I’d sum up that first year in the following ways:



Needless to say — many days, sometimes multiple times a day, I felt like an epic failure “AND IT HURT MAN!” Did I stick it out, learn, grow, and become a better teacher over the next 10 years? Absolutely! The lesson I learned, alongside my students, that has stayed with me is the positive power of failure. However, it is also important to remember that trying and failing HURTS and is HARD because as we teach young people about the importance of failing and of what it means to have a growth-mindset, we must acknowledge the pain involved. How do we accomplish both: acknowledging the pain and teaching the positive power of failure? Here are 3 ways to redefine failure!

1. SHATTER THE PARADIGM OF FAILURE (for yourself and your students)

At the end of that first year of teaching, I attended a workshop hosted by Echoing Green called “Work on Purpose.” One of their philosophies is the “Gall to Think Big” and states phrases like “give yourself permission to try” and “failure is…proof you are thinking big.” We participated in an activity they call the “Fail-Off” where participants were encouraged to stand in front of the group and share their biggest and best failure: a time that they tried incredibly hard, gave it their all, and failed. After someone finished sharing, the rest of the group was instructed to applaud wildly. AND WE DID. The group was then asked the question, “Why was their failure worthy of applause?” We shared with the failure-sharer traits, actions, and themes we heard in their story that demonstrated resilience, courage, strength. That one activity shattered my paradigm of failure and created a unique bond with the other members in that group. We must teach our students to see and approach failure differently through similar activities.

In a world where student depression is increasing, we need to constantly be talking to our youth about their mindsets and providing opportunities for those mindsets to be shaped. There are even failure clubs that exist around the world, all aimed at conquering the fear of failure. It is important to note that in all of these examples, failure after much effort was celebrated, not failure due to a lack of trying.


Last week, while scrolling through instagram, a video of Steven Furtick discussing failure, or success, caught my attention. He said, “See, our concept of failure flows from our definition of success. We all have invisible scorecards by which we judge our lives. These scorecards are comprised of columns like social standing, net worth, and relationship status, to name a few. But have you ever stopped to think about who even created your columns and categories to begin with?”

In the aforementioned article about depression worsening in students, I imagine Steven Furtick would ask, “How are those students defining success? What’s on their scorecards?” Jean Twenge, a researcher quoted in the article, would probably agree with Furtick as she named an increase in social media screen time as a possible cause.

As educators, we must then help students recreate those scorecards. Similar to social standing, academic standing can become a way that students define success. When achievement is the definition of success, then many students can immediately become apathetic or feel like a failure as there is only one valedictorian, only one highest achiever. However, when academic growth and academic effort are the definition of success, it begins to feel like an attainable possibility. In The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, Carol Dweck states, “Children praised for their intelligence solved significantly fewer problems after a failure than they had before encountering difficulty. In contrast, children praised for their effort solved more problems after their brush with adversity than they had before it.”


After reading Dweck’s article, I decided to try it out. That year I taught nonfiction studies and decided to create a bulletin board with the nonfiction heroes (picture below), one of which was based on achievement, the other three based on effort.

nonfiction heroes blog.jpeg

I gave clear directions to the students on how to earn being these heroes. At the end of a week I would consider their attitude toward trying in class and their work on the paper and make the following determinations:

  • Student with overall highest score on exit tickets (or daily assignments) = Super Scholar
  • Student who used time wisely throughout each class period, always working to grow his/her brain = Wonder Worker
  • Student who completed the above and beyond (or constant learner) activities on the assignments or made up their own = Captain Above & Beyond
  • Student who demonstrated growth in attitude or in exit ticket scores from last week to this week = Elasti-Growth

The results were remarkable. By the end of the first few days, students were bringing multiple books to class with them in case they finished their assignments and had time to “grow their brain.” Students were turning in additional pages of worksheets they completed or of maps they had drawn and labeled. Each Monday, I announced who earned being our heroes, and showed off their work or told a story that represented why they earned the title. The work was stapled on the bulletin board along with their picture. The effort and papers of above and beyond activities continued to pour in throughout the year.

Why did it work? How did it stay living? Simple. As a class, we redefined success as effort & growth-based, we made that definition public, and we made working toward it something of which to be proud.

💻 Check out Edcite’s growth mindset items below or search “Growth mindset” after logging into your teacher account

A paper assignment from my classroom: Failure Rocks

meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.


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