“Are you afraid of failing”

Fear of Failure (1)

“Let me ask you something – are you afraid of failing?”

The question smacked me right in the face as I stood in the middle of the lobby of Movement Lab. After months of being intrigued about Nia (“a sensory based movement experience that blends 52 moves with 9 movement forms of the dance arts, martial arts and healing arts,” via the Movement Lab website), I finally got up the courage to sign up for a class.

I am not a very good dancer. Surprising, given that I took ballet for eight years and spent seven seasons on the Varsity cheerleading squad in high school. In all honesty, rhythm is hard for me. But I’ve always enjoyed dancing and I love a good dance class where I don’t feel judged. So on Saturday, I signed up for Nia.

When I arrived, I was told that in addition to checking in, I needed to sign the film release waiver because the class would be filmed. Wait, what?

“It’s my first time here, I’m not sure…” I sputtered. And that’s when the front desk assistant introduced me to Sinclair, who asked me about my fear of failing.

The truth is, no. I am not afraid of failing. I’m quite adept at failing. I love trying new things, and I’m totally cool with being bad at them. What I did realize on Sunday, though, was that I make sure that my “trying new things” happens in spaces where it is okay for me to fail. With the introduction of filming into the equation, I needed assurance that it was still safe for me to be bad – even terrible! – at Nia.

The question, of course, made me think of my students. Are our students afraid to fail? Are we creating spaces where it is safe for them to fail? Are we, as educators, regularly putting ourselves in situations where we might fail, too? Are we celebrating when they feel the fear of failure and try something hard anyways? And most importantly, how can what are some ways that we, as educators, can support them?

Try new things, and share our struggles (and successes!) with our students. As a teacher, when was the last time you tried something completely new that you were horribly, miserably bad at? Maybe it’s a dance class or attempting (and botching) a new recipe, going for a run for the first time in a really long time or taking a graduate level class that totally fries your brain. And if you can’t think of something, then you need to make it a priority to get outside of your comfort zone. Every day, our students are asked to spend nearly eight hours straight trying new things. Hopefully, they’re having fun while doing it, but regardless, we are asking kids to give us eight hours a day, five days a week, of vulnerability. The expectation is that they will balance their fear of failure and their desire to be successful and constantly be open to learning. And not just within our classrooms, but in their social lives too.To be honest, that’s a lot to expect of anyone – and especially kids whose brains aren’t even fully developed yet! As their teachers, we owe it to them to walk a few miles in their shoes so that we can empathize when they’re having a tough day.

Find ways to celebrate mistakes. In his bestselling books, Brian Tracy often references how top sales firms will hold contests in the morning to see which salespeople can reach 100 rejections first. The rationale is that somewhere along the way to 100 rejections, you come to recognize how normal – and non-scary! – rejection is. You lose the fear of failure, which in turn gives you the space to fearlessly pursue success. While we certainly don’t want our kids purposefully giving the wrong answer in order to “win,” finding ways to celebrate mistakes can create an atmosphere where all students feel safe to be vulnerable in their learning. One easy way to do this is to allow all students to make up any points they miss the first time around. Elevate it by putting the names of all students who earn back their points (fix their mistake) into a bowl and drawing a winner (or several!) every few weeks.

Reward risk taking. The mainstream school system rewards students following the rules. But let’s be honest – in real life, playing it safe doesn’t lead to promotions or raises. It’s the risk takers who ultimately succeed. Take “project based learning,” for example. If every student’s submission for an assignment looks exactly the same, grading is going to be miserable. And, I’d argue that your students haven’t begun to access the higher levels of Bloom’s — they’re not creating, but simply following the rules you set. Rewarding creativity, outside the box thinking, and biting off more than one can chew helps to give kids the green light to step outside their comfort zone and try something new. In my classroom, kids have to go outside the box to earn the last 10% of a grade (my rubrics only go to 90%), and risk-taking is celebrated with calls home and in class recognition.

For what it’s worth – I’m still not a totally coordinated dancer. But in letting go of my fear of failing, I found joy in the hour long dance party, and will definitely be back for more.


Published by Jen

A political science major turned computer science teacher, I am passionate about inspiring a love for learning through authentic, real world experiences. I blog about education: ways we can help students succeed, how to innovate within the classroom, and my own quest to never stop learning.

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