Fear of Failure

One of my favourite quotes is “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. by Thomas A. Edison or if you would like something a little more up-to-date I often refer to James Dyson. “it took five years and 5127 failed prototype to develop on that worked.  If failure sucks but instructs, that is a lot of learning”.

Why do I like this? Because so many students are scared to fail, so scared, that some by 17 year olds haven’t. They have worked and worked so hard that they have never failed a test or got a low grade, they have always been picked for the team.  They spend hours on their looks and outfits. Some rarely make mistakes. So when failure actually does hit their door ( and it will) everything comes crashing down.  It’s normally the driving test, right before their mock examinations. Or worse still, right before their real A2 exams.

Why are they so scared of failure? Well part of this must be the pressure that either we ( and by that I mean parents, school and society) put on them. But another must be because of their role models and how everyone is so quick to pick up on their mistakes and publicly judge them. I often joke that sixth form girls often have two extremes of role models. Miley Cyrus or the Duchess of Cambridge ( lets call her Kate ). One is a rebel and doesn’t care what others think, teenagers like her attitude but don’t really want to be her. Confrontational in her dress and attitude. The other is immaculate in every way, but rarely speaks and she doesn’t look like she is having fun, well at least not to a 17 year old.  I let you work out which is which. Both are criticised by the press all the time. Therefore nobody is perfect, so why do our pupils strive to be so? Why is it no ok to make that mistake or fail a test once in a while?

How can we help the students to make mistakes and learn from them? Again I would like to use another quote although I am struggling to find who wrote it. Falling into puddles doesn’t define you; it’s how you get up that does.

I feel that we as role models need to help them when they do make a mistake. Don’t criticise but give constructive points about how to not make the same mistake again. This is harder that you think.  Actually being able to look back at something without getting depressed and blinkered takes maturity.  To think constructively about what went wrong is something some students will need help with. Throw in the fact that many students are suffering a Mental Health problem and its even harder to move past the mistake. We as role models also need to admit when we have made a mistake. Saying we are sorry are only human. Showing how we move forward when we have made a mistake is a huge learning curve for them and sometimes other staff. We as teachers need to step up and be the role models that they are desperately looking for.

Build their confidence. Some students are so worried about their work being rubbish that they hesitate to start, so I often scribble at the top of the page and say, page is already IMG_1863ruined anyway so it doesn’t matter what you do. This has worked well with a few students who suffer badly with anxiety, that I actually see them scribble at the top of their test. They also need to fail at something and it not be the end of the world.  A cycle proficiency test was perfect opportunity for me. At 11 it was the biggest and most important test in the world. I failed but actually it didn’t really matter and I moved forward.  Tried again and passed. Obviously I still get upset when I fail ( or when I perceive that I have failed, which is a whole other topic ) but I have learnt that I need to try again and again and again.


So let’s find something that we / they may fail at. Still give it a good shot and try our best, but there is a chance it might go wrong as it’s not a strength. Doesn’t matter what it is, a Music exam, or even a game of Uno. But the sooner the better.

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Assistant Head ( DSL) at a boarding school. Interested in all PSHE and safeguarding topics.

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