George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

For Teachers, Risking Failure to Improve Practice

One teacher insists that failure isn’t an endpoint; it’s an opportunity for learning and improvement.

June 20, 2019
SolStock / iStock

While teachers often encourage students to use failures to learn and grow, they may not do the same for themselves. Education Week reporter Madeline Will explores how failure can inform teaching as part of a special report about the challenges and opportunities of professional development. 

An acceptance of failure as a byproduct of learning is part of a growth mindset, but “even though failing in the classroom is a source of stress, anxiety, and even shame for many teachers, educators say it's rare to have professional development that centers around bouncing back from a bad lesson or ‘failing forward,’ using the experience as an opportunity for growth,” Will writes. There's very little training for teachers on coping with the inevitable classroom failures and figuring out how to turn them into improved practices. 

One Iowan teacher, Sarah Brown Wessling, leads professional development opportunities to encourage growth through failure. Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, was being filmed by the Teaching Channel when her lesson on Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible bombed. Students were confused and overwhelmed by what Wessling asked of them. The video shows Wessling responding to the spiraling lesson as it happened, as well as her later assessment of what went wrong. Wessling’s failure and reflection resonated with other teachers; the video “accumulated at least 140,000 plays over the years.”

Wessling described the moment she realized that even her strongest student didn't understand the lesson. “All right. That was a total disaster,” she admitted. “And we're going to have to fix it.” She regrouped, rearranged her room, and revamped her lesson for the next class. After simplifying the lesson, she debriefed the experience with a colleague and reflected on the changes she made. 

Wessling concluded that recovering from failure is about more than resilience; it’s about using the failure as a springboard for better instruction. While the pace of teaching often doesn’t allow for reflection, she says, it is important not just to make mistakes but to make time to assess and learn from those errors. She “learned how to course correct through experience” and now encourages other educators to use their failures as growth opportunities.  

Video played a fortuitous role in Wessling’s professional development, but filming doesn’t have to be an accident. At Edutopia, we recently covered a school in Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, that periodically uses a swivel camera to record teachers in the classroom; the camera also captures student reactions in the form of facial expressions, body language, and participation. “At Kettle Moraine High School, everyone is working towards creating a culture of growth and taking risks," says instructional coach Jill Gilbert. Teachers are given time to review their videotaped lesson with a coach, picking out their strengths and areas for improvement in a supportive, non-judgmental environment.  

Schools should encourage that kind of risk-taking and self-evaluation, and be far more tolerant of second and even third tries. Experimentation inherently involves failure, and “If a teacher hasn't failed in the classroom lately, he or she isn't pushing the envelope far enough,” writes Will, quoting Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like a Pirate. Accepting failure is an important part of the process of improving the teaching practice and frees educators to take risks that can unlock their own potential and improve outcomes for their students.

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