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Avoiding the Blame Game: Overcoming Failures in the Classroom

Exhausted teacher, face down on a couch.

The idea you haven’t done enough is just one of the teacher lies you tell yourself.

As teachers, we're pretty good at helping kids develop the skills for overcoming failures. We tell them not to get down on themselves and to learn from their mistakes. We teach them that failure is a part of life—what matters is how you handle it.

Further reading: 9 Stress Management Strategies Every Teacher Needs to Know

That's good advice. But shouldn't it apply to us, too? At some point in our career, each of us will have to contend with adverse outcomes that we didn't expect, didn't want, and sometimes couldn't avoid. How do we handle these situations?

Silence Your Inner Critic

We are our toughest critics. When I was learning to play golf, I would say things to myself like, "What a stupid shot," or "You stink at this." Then one day my golf teacher told me to never say anything to myself that I wouldn't allow someone else to say to me. I took this lesson and applied it to teaching and my life.

"No one is a super-teacher 24/7," writes Mary Tedrow in EdWeek Teacher. "Some failure is a natural consequence of the tremendous challenges we take on." Referencing writer Thomas Newkirk's work on overcoming failure in teaching, Tedrow writes that "All teachers struggle with regular failures: students they can't reach, lessons that fall flat, explanations that are met by blank stares." I could add several examples to this list; I once had half a class fail a test on a novel that very few students read.

Recognizing that we aren't alone in dealing with these situations is a step toward quieting our inner critic. Whether you have to face the parent of a child who failed your class or a principal unhappy with your test results, remember that these situations happen to everyone. Knowing that you have supportive colleagues who have faced the same problems goes a long way toward overcoming failures—whether they're real or perceived.

Avoid the Blame Game

I once taught in a school where the principal revealed every class's state test scores at a faculty meeting each year. No one looked forward to this big reveal, but we realized over time that just about every teacher's score ended up lower than expected at least once.

It was tempting to blame poor results on teacher overload, students with inadequate skills, or unreasonable expectations. Sure, some of these issues affected student achievement, but they didn't fully account for why the kids weren't achieving. Over time, we tried to see if we could learn anything from the test results. Was the test valid? Did students' scores reflect their usual grades? Which questions were missed most frequently? Were these skills part of our curriculum? Gleaning this information—and reviewing the results of the previous several years' tests—helped us understand the test and plan better for the next year.

Our response was pretty positive given that it's not easy to learn from failure because failure and blame are "virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures," writes Professor Amy Edmondson in the Harvard Business Review. "Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame," she adds. The same is true for adults. As teachers, we need to focus on reframing negative thoughts and finding solutions rather than being dragged into the blame game.

Understand Failure You Didn't Create

The reasons for failure are often clear. One year, my school adopted a writing curriculum that teachers knew wouldn't work. Sure enough, our kids did poorly on the writing section of their final exams. While it was a failure, it wasn't our failure.

These kinds of problems aren't academic, but systemic. Problems within the school system are often beyond our control, but they directly affect our ability to succeed. Teachers in many states went on strike in the past year—not only to demand better wages, but to insist on smaller class sizes and more classroom support. Teachers in Los Angeles, for example, wanted higher wages, but they also wanted more school nurses, counselors, and librarians, according to USA Today. A more robust support staff would help kids be more successful, the teachers claimed.

There's no question that today's teachers are dealing with challenges they didn't create. In The Washington Post, teacher and writer Jeremy Adams, highlighted some of these challenges: cellphone addiction, student anxiety, fear of school shootings and lockdowns, high-stakes testing. These challenges contribute to failures in the classroom, and overcoming them requires more resources than a single teacher or school can draw on. Despite these problems, however, according to a USA Today poll, teachers believe that they do a better job of educating kids than they did 10 years ago. The poll also revealed that 75 percent of teachers said that if they could pick a career all over again, they'd still choose teaching!

Further reading: 5 Things a Stressed Teacher Thinks About Before Bed 

Work Toward Solutions

Failure is not an option, or so the famous phrase goes. But what is optional is how we approach overcoming failures. We should remember that we're not alone. We should give ourselves a break and remind ourselves that no one is Super Teacher every day. We should ignore our inner critic. We should see if there's anything to be learned from failure. And we should work with our colleagues to help improve the system so that more kids can be successful.