The Fear of Failure

Yesterday, I posted this article to my Facebook page. Interestingly, it claims that parents have the responsibility to teach their children that failure is okay.

A child of parents who never sugar-coated anything, the notion of learning from your mistakes makes perfect sense to me. However, as an educator, I often see students who are terrified of failing. Getting an answer incorrect causes anxiety and heaven-forbid they try something where they will fail the first go-around.

Do not give up, words on blackboard

The fact is, failing is a natural part of life. As a teacher, it is my job to prepare students for the many failures they were encounter. This doesn’t mean I purposely give failing marks; rather, I try to foster resilience in students. I get them to reflect on their mistakes. What can they do better the next time? What did they learn from their failed attempts?

I was lucky – when I failed as a child, my parents saw it as a learning opportunity. They didn’t blame the teacher, coach or other students. My failure was mine alone. I had to persevere.

I think back to my days of running high school cross-country. I was not as fast as I wanted to be. I sometimes came in dead last. Instead of telling me that running wasn’t for me or blaming my failure on weather, poor biomechanics or a myriad of other factors, my dad asked me how I was going to get better. When I decided I wasn’t going to wear a watch during races (which curbed my anxiety about mile split times), he supported me. I still remember my first race without a watch. It was torture, running through the cornfields of the Midwest, dripping with sweat, feeling like I was going to place dead-last. But my father’s booming voice cheering me on and my teammates who echoed his sentiments gave me strength.

In the end, I ran a Personal Best that day. I still came in near the end of the pack, but did I fail? No. In my mind, I had reached my goal, a goal put into motion because of previous failures. I learned mental toughness, strength and resilience, which would help me later in life when faced with jobs, relationship and finances.

The fear of failure is real. Parents are afraid of failing their children and children believe that failing is not an option. Failure is unpleasant. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s in failure that we find strength.

Mean girls…do they really mean it?

This week, a 16-year-old female visited the restroom at her school and emerged in a body bag.

Mean girl bullying is nothing new and it happens to anyone and everyone. I was bullied in junior high and every time Facebook suggests that I “friend” the girl who tormented me some 20 years ago, I laugh. However, twenty years ago, I was doing anything but laughing.

Girl grudges run deep. I know this because: 1.) I am a girl; 2.) As a teacher, I witness it every day.

While adolescence sparks many hormones and emotions, some adults forget that middle and high school students often react with their emotions without thinking about the consequences. Girl problems with adolescent students may appear trivial to adults, but to the students, these issues are MAJOR. All too many times I see school personnel brush off bullying among girls, claiming girls are just “catty” by nature, or figuring they will eventually “figure things out.”

I’m not a certified counselor, but I spend a good majority of my day speaking with my female students about their girl drama. Most of the time, they bring it to me. They may ask to have their seat moved or ask advice on how to deal with a situation. Sometimes, they whip our their phones and show me the malicious cyber-bullying that affects them or their friends on a personal level.

While I’m happy these girls are asking for help, I’m sure I only hear about a tiny fraction of the bullying that actually occurs throughout the day. Additionally, I feel helpless when it comes to dealing with these issues. Did I say the right thing or offer the best advice? What more could I have done?

Mean girls and bullying exist in schools, but what is being done to combat it before it gets to the level that it did in Delaware?

Many schools lack counselors, who have the training and time to offer advice, peer mediation, social groups and much more. Thus, teachers are the next best resource for students who have peer issues. However, some students may not even feel comfortable taking their problems to a teacher. Then what? Students live in fear of even going to the bathroom at school?

Sure, some victims of bullying will seek help. But who is offering counseling to the mean girls? What is their motivation for acting out in such a malicious way?

School should not be a frightening place for students. However, for many it is just that. When I was bullied many moons ago, I could leave school and forget about it for a few hours. However, today’s social media ensures that bullying can occur 24/7. There is no offline.

While bullying is not likely to cease, schools need to step up their game when it comes to building and maintaining relationships with students. Support systems need to be in place for both students and teachers who oftentimes run short of knowledge and time when it comes to dealing with the emotional needs of adolescents.

So, do mean girls really mean it? Or is it a cry for help in a system that if failing them?






Is there a such thing as a resistant reader?

Recently, I read an article entitled, “The Importance of Real Reading for Resistant Readers.” While the author made some salient points, (self-selected texts, reading for at least 10 minutes a day, putting a book down when you’re not that into it), it made me question my own practice and students.

As any teacher, I come across students who claim to “hate” reading. During silent reading time, these students often spend forever selecting a text only to take it back to their desk and do anything but read it. At the end of silent reading, the book is left on the desk, floor or hastily thrown back on the bookshelf. If the student does take the book with them, it ends up lost or strewn about in a locker. I used to view this behavior as disrespectful. I would get angry upon seeing my books carelessly littered on the hallway floors. I would lecture students about the importance of books. I would cry inside when my otherwise new books were returned looking like they’d been ran over by a semi-truck.

The kids didn’t understand my concern. Why was I so fretful? They were just books!

Yes, they were just books. Books that my students wished they could read. Books that they acted like they read when the sad truth was, they lacked the skills necessary to read them. They weren’t resistant readers. They were readers who were in the primary stages of learning how to read. And they were in middle school. I was not angry at them. I was angry at the system for failing them.

The “resistant” reader is resistant because they lack the skills they need to read! Of course they “hate” reading. It’s difficult! Somewhere along the line, people failed them. Or did they?

I have a difficult time blaming anyone when I have a student who struggles to read. Sure, I could blame his/her former teachers, but I know that they probably did all they could with little or no support and were forced to pass students, regardless of if they could read or not. I could blame his/her parent(s), because a love for reading starts at home with bedtime stories and trips to the local library. I could blame the school system for pressuring teachers to pass students onto the next grade for money or numbers or data or a great deal of other ridiculous formalities.

The truth is, no one is to blame and everyone is to blame, but one is wasting time pointing fingers. The real question is, How do we (teachers, parents, schools) help current resistant readers become just “readers?” How can we make it so there are fewer resistant readers in our middle and high school classrooms?

Perhaps one solution is intervention. Currently, I teach literacy in tracked middle grade sections. Thus, I have an entire class of students who are reading well below grade level. Many of these students fumble over words; some word-call and read beautifully, but are unable to answer basic recall questions about what they read. I teach grade-level novels to these students. We read aloud a good amount of the time and they enjoy the story, as all of them are age-appropriate. However, when asked to read a chapter alone, less than half of the students do so. They fail pop quizzes. They stare at blankly me when I try to teach things like characterization using the main character of the novel. I preach that they need to read! They promise they will. They look like they’re reading. They are trying. Am I the problem?

For years, I mentally beat myself up over my resistant reader.  But eventually, I realized that I was not a horrible teacher. And my students were not resistant readers; they were emergent readers in middle school.  I was failing them by expecting them to complete tasks at their frustration levels. These readers needed basic reading instruction for learning how to read and I was expecting them to read novels and write character analyses.

At some schools, students who are labeled as resistant readers are not required to take grade-level reading and writing classes. Instead, they learn to read using Wilson and Fountas and Pinnell. While I have no data or experience working with these students (Although, I do have a friend who does!), I would wager that their reading levels improve and so does their experience with reading.

For students who do not receive interventions, what happens? While many probably remain “resistant” readers, how does that impact their future? What more can I do? Is there a such thing as a “resistant” reader, or are these students just a product of a broken system? These are the questions that keep me up at night.