Teacher Wellness

Using Setbacks as a Path to Success in Teaching

Things often don’t go as planned in the classroom—here’s a systematic way to turn these moments into opportunities for growth.

May 3, 2024
Dan Grytsku / Alamy Stock Photo

My experience with unexpected outcomes in teaching guided me to the concept of “strategic failure.” In our profession, encountering situations that don’t go as planned is common. These moments can be profoundly transformative and provide invaluable lessons—we can use these setbacks to improve in teaching. The idea of strategic failure enables us to perceive these challenges as growth opportunities. It reframes setbacks as stepping stones toward becoming more effective and empathetic educators.

The concept of strategic failure, rooted in business, is immensely relevant for educators. Each of the 1,500 educational decisions we make daily presents a chance for success or setback. Imagine redefining every classroom challenge—a lesson plan that falls flat or a classroom management strategy that doesn’t pan out—as an opportunity for growth. By approaching these situations as strategic failures, we can extract meaningful lessons.

Doing so does more than just address setbacks; it cultivates resilience and adaptability, equipping us to confront educational challenges directly and enhance our teaching methods. It acts as a driving force for both professional and personal growth, providing a positive example for our students and steering our classroom experiences toward excellence. Implementing the I-F-A-I-L framework I describe below is one way to do this.

I: Initiate Mindset Shift

Cultivate a mindset to anticipate and embrace failure. To do this, I continuously remind myself that failure is an inevitable part of the teaching journey. Rather than being caught off guard when it happens, I’m prepared with strategies to handle it in the healthiest way possible. I acknowledge and honor my emotions—feeling the sting of failure but not allowing it to consume me. 

I strive to build my emotional resilience, recognizing that while disappointment, defeat, or rejection may arise, these feelings do not define me or reflect my worth as a teacher. Instead of internalizing failure, I challenge any negative thoughts it may bring. For instance, after my first Socratic Seminar, I could have concluded that I was an ineffective teacher due to the lack of success. However, I chose to manage my mindset, viewing this experience not as a definitive failure but as a crucial step in my learning process. This perspective encouraged me to continue experimenting with Socratic Seminars, trying different formats, structures, and topics until I discovered what worked best for me and my students. 

What’s your first step toward shifting your mindset?

F: Find Reflection Time

Implement regular reflection through gratitude journaling. To effectively manage failures, I have learned the importance of focusing on the positives—acknowledging and celebrating even the smallest wins. This practice helps to soften the blow of setbacks by placing them within a context of success. Barbara Fredrickson’s “positivity ratio” highlights the benefits of experiencing positive emotions at a rate of at least three to one, compared with negative ones. 

This strategy amplifies positive experiences to outweigh the negative ones (not dismissing them). I put this into practice with “My Victories List,” a straightforward way to capture the day’s joyous moments. I take brief breaks to jot down wins on my phone—during breaks between classes, after the school day, or before bed. Simple acknowledgments, like noting my students’ smiles during a Socratic Seminar and its positive effect on their attitudes, are examples of what goes into this list. 

How do you plan to consistently recognize the wins to lessen the impact of the failures?

A: Activate Support

Seek out or establish support networks and communities. There’s power in community. In the book Who Not How, business coach Dan Sullivan advocates for harnessing the strengths of others through connections and collaborations, championing the idea that partnerships lead to more efficient, innovative, and successful outcomes. For teachers, this translates into actively seeking or creating support networks. The goal is to find spaces—whether through peer discussions, professional learning networks, community organizations, or faith-based groups, or with mentors or coaches, and whether in school, online, or in external settings—to freely share experiences and insights. 

These communities should be safe havens where open dialogue and experimenting with innovative approaches are encouraged without the fear of judgment or failure. Such connections have enriched my journey. I have sought support from a therapist, found immense value in my sorority, been enriched in professional learning communities, and gained insights in Facebook groups. In some networks, we meet monthly to exchange best practices, success stories, practical strategies, and teaching tools. These experiences have reinforced the beauty and benefits of having a supportive network.

Where will you find your community?

I: Implement Adaptations

Pursue feedback to take deliberate and strategic actions. Feedback is a crucial tool for taking deliberate and strategic actions. It can range from surveys or interviews that we conduct to gather insights from stakeholders about what’s effective (or not) to analyzing numerical data for improvement.

Equally important is acknowledging and giving ourselves credit for the cumulative effort we put into our work, even when the outcomes don’t meet our expectations. Recognizing this effort is a form of feedback in itself. For instance, after the initial setback of my first Socratic Seminar, I didn’t quit. I gave myself credit by recognizing the value in the extensive preparation and materials I developed, which laid a foundation for me to create a more structured  approach for a future seminar.

Feedback is crucial to personal and professional growth, fostering a strategic and deliberate culture of continuous learning and action. 

How will you incorporate feedback into your journey of growth and action?

L: Lean Into Lessons

Celebrate the growth that comes from failures. I’ve learned to view failures not as setbacks but as crucial learning opportunities. I ask myself probing questions to uncover the lessons that each failure teaches: “What was the experience? What aspects didn’t work? How did it affect me emotionally? What did I learn from it? How can this experience shape my future actions or approach?” 

I gained several insights about Socratic Seminars from this pursuit of curiosity. Although I was well prepared, I realized that I hadn’t fully equipped my students for this style of dialogue—one they hadn’t experienced before. In response, I attended training and adapted my future seminars, by adding scaffolding (prep time with starter questions and sentence frames). Because I leaned into the lessons from the failure, I grew more resilient in navigating the complexities of failure. 

What steps will you take to approach failures as lessons?

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