Making Friends With Failure


So here’s the setup… today’s Daily Shoot challenge was to capture a silhouette of some sort.  My plan from the warm confines of my living room this afternoon? =>  Turn it around a bit.  Grab that copper likeness of the sun from a nearby wall, take it to the river with me and my little girl, and have her hold it out at arm’s length, directly in front of the sun… thereby creating a silhouette of the sun… by the sun.

I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work out as smoothly as I had thought it might.  My near-three-year old quickly found the “sun” too heavy to hold in such a way.  “It’s too heavy daddy.”  Well, of course I wasn’t disappointed in the least, but since I got her all fired up for the shot on the drive down to the snowy shore of the Missouri River…  she certainly was.

my little perfectionist

So I stepped back, stuck the sun into the snow, and snapped off a shot to remind us of the attempt.   Even though I didn’t take the time to adjust the setup (and so you see the sun “blown out” and over-exposed), I really did capture a moment in time.   After scooping her up and telling her how she is the most precious thing to me-  followed by some intense tickling, we climbed inside the toasty car.

The bottom line:  she’s a bit too much like me at the core.  I’m glad I know that while she’s only two years old.  It took me a long time to make friends with failure.  I’m comforted that she has parents who are now quite fond of the messiness of learning.  Being the first-born daughter of two first-born parents might just otherwise carry some potential stress, if you subscribe to that sort of thing.

her eyes

Education is life, is…

So in typing an outline of this little story into Flickr, where I am ten days into my first image-a-day “Project 365,” it hit me how close this comes to the classroom at times.  You see, I knew exactly what I wanted out of that shot.  I have stood behind an SLR with an excited neuron enough times to know what I can and cannot do at this point.  And right here is the rub.  How many times have you envisioned a classroom task where the student work failed miserably to meet your expectations?

I don’t think I have to say “if so” here, do I?  We’ve all been there.  My question is…  what did you do about it?  Hopefully, you finally got around to looking inward at your own expectations, approaches, and scaffolding.  We all jump too fast along the continuum of gradual release from time to time.  It’s hard to slip your brain inside those of a hundred others to see what the best “next step” is every time.  And if you’re an innovator?  Well, if you’re prone to innovation, you often swim in unfamiliar waters… continually using your teacher senses to lead your students through the rip-currents of failure.

Jumping too early and expecting more autonomy than is warranted at a given moment in the educational spectrum is commonplace.  What I would suggest isn’t so routine is tapping on the brakes for a moment, stopping the classroom bus and saying:  “hold on a sec…  I took something for granted…  let’s go back and try it this way.” It is far easier to push the blame onto our students.  We get into that, “well when are they going to learn responsibility and independence?” …sort of thing.  I’m certainly not saying that students can’t be lazy from time to time.  I could write the book on that.  Yet, I would suggest that our teacher energy is best channeled into what we can realistically control.  The only things we can 100% control within the classroom on a daily basis are the choices we make.

successes and failures

I think we need to create little microcosms where failure is frequent.  Not because failing is magical, but because stopping short leaves potential learning on the table.  I advocate the creation of zones where we actively engage failure as some sort of pushing-back-against-boundaries sort of thing.  Our classrooms can be this.  Allowing  -even pushing kids-  to “safe” failures teaches us all something about what we can and cannot do any any given point in time.  We have to get to the point where that isn’t scary.  Especially for our most talented children.  If you are so accustomed to winning, and have forgotten feels like to fail, after a while you teach yourself to avoid it at all costs. Our kids suck a bit of water up their noses while learning to swim, right?  In our protective arms, this sort of failure builds confidence.  Should it really be that different in the classroom?

Prevent the big fail.  Rub elbows with your students.  Sit side by side with them as they work and watch them interact with…  whatever it is you’re asking them to interact with.  Find out what makes each kid tick.  Put out sparks before they become fires.  Teach.  Teach along the way.  And pay close attention:  if you didn’t already attempt the student project yourself, then you should be sued for malpractice.

And really, if you’re still didactically preaching along from the pulpit on most days, you’ll likely not even run into this little snag.  I bet this job looks easy from behind a podium.


*”my little perfectionist” by me on Flickr.
*”her eyes” by me on Flickr.
*”successes and failures” by Will Lion on Flickr.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at


  1. I would certainly agree that my greatest successes have come after failures. Many times in the last few years I have had failures in the classroom, and it is a powerful moment to admit with the kids and say “you know what this isn’t really working, why not?” I’ve noticed that causes a major shift in the dynamic of the classroom when the students know teachers can make mistakes, and that we aren’t the all knowing master of the universe.

    I have also learned too that I never assign a project or integrate a new tech tool without first doing it myself. I am always way more prepared to help my students when I know what problems and processes they will encounter. Thanks for the insights, I’m ready for some failure.

    Good Luck with the 365 project, that takes some serious dedication.

    • “I would certainly agree that my greatest successes have come after failures.”

      That statement being true… perhaps a primary goal for you is to truly get yourself into situations where you have the opportunity to experience a high volume of safe struggles? Seems like a 2 + 2 = 4, no?

      Really- 365 photos in a year is a drop in the bucket of what I shoot already. The difference is the slow feed. My shots usually come in fits & spurts as opposed to a steady stream. But already- it changes the way you look at things. I think I was a pretty observant human before. I’ve always been a “green” personality type who ponders things just for the fun of it. However, there’s something about this that is different. It’s still hard for me to explain. By next December, perhaps I’ll have it figured out.

      I certainly didn’t need another “thing” to do, but it has been enjoyable thus far. We’ll see what happens. I like the unknown.

  2. Thanks for the perspective. I had a tough day teaching today, feeling like a failure myself. It’s hard to let failure rest . . . I, too, am a first-born. Yet, when I think about it, what I ask my students to do is both difficult but where we need to be. In this case, I need to adjust my approach, rather than my speed or expectations. And asking the students why they’re not getting it isn’t a bad idea, either! Nice way to end my day. And I, too, love photography! Teacher by day, photographer by any-day-off.

  3. Nice post, Sean. I recently had a similar experience and have been letting it simmer in the back of my mind for a while.

    Over the break, I decided to learn how to knit. After many, many, many failures, I finally knit twenty or thirty mostly successful rows. I’d hate to be graded on those first attempts, or even the first several rows. The stitches are uneven — some too tight, some too loose. I can’t count the number of times I had to unravel the whole project and start over.

    Fortunately, the YouTube videos I found featured “experts” who were comfortable with failure, continually reminding viewers to unravel and redo if necessary — no big deal. Another advantage was the pause button, which I wore out.

    Before my knitting venture, I had little experience with failure when trying to learn something as a student. (I’m also a first-born, for what it’s worth). This experience made me slow down, experience frustration and failure, find new resources, and try again…and again….and again…until I (mostly) got it right. I considered giving up at one point, packing the yarn and needles away and just watching a movie or reading a good book instead.

    More than the knit stitch, though, I also learned something about my own teaching. I was forced to take a hard look at how well I coach my students for success. Looking back, there are plenty of times I should have slowed down and let my students unravel a few rows and start over instead of expecting them to “get it” and move on. It’s really no wonder some of them were frustrated and gave up. Fortunately, a new semester offers a fresh chance to do better.

  4. Unfortunately, there are still too many behind the podium. That’s so boring and lonely too. Great post. I’m first-born, and my problem is also a fear of letting go of complete control. I’m working on it, but as a teacher that translates into failure because the best learning happens when I let go and let it happen – even after planning. Actually, being comfortable with failure is freeing, and discussing it with students very satisfying. A new partnership.

  5. Ironically, this is my third attempt to post a response–I messed up your bot detector, then learned (too late) that going backwards doesn’t work.

    Anyway, I wrote to say your post came at a really good time for me–and even with a track record of some pretty spectacular failures (and a few successes) along the way, it’s great to be reminded that it’s the big fail that threatens us.

    (If we’re ever in a pub together, ask me about the Johnson and Johnson vaccine initiative–I still cringe over that one.)

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