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Why Are Students Afraid to Fail?

Why is it ok to not try?

Earlier this week I was observing a classroom and the students had just completed a quiz. After seeing a table that had finished up, I sat down with them to see how they felt they did on the test. We as educators do not always get time to have a candid conversation with our students. So I jumped at the chance to find out what they thought. This was a classroom I do not normally spend a lot of time in and the students have had very little interaction with me thus far.

I may paraphrase portions of the conversation but it went something like this:

"Good morning, good people. How do you think you did on the test?"

The young lady to my left made a face and said, “FAILED!”

I then asked the two other gentleman at the table their thoughts and one of the boys agreed with the young lady and the other boy initially agreed but then said, “No, I think I did ok.”

This led me to ask him, “What does ok mean to you?”

His response was, “I think I got a 60 or a 70.”

I took a second and responded. “You do realize that is barely passing or failing altogether?”

He laughs and says, “Yeah, this is math class. I am no good at math.”

From there, I took that statement and asked the table, “Have you guys always hated math or was there an event that has led to that feeling?”

These students did not have a geometry teacher their sophomore year and Algebra 1 had a teacher but wasn’t the most effective and that class was now two years ago.

The students said they enjoyed math previously and overall used to be pretty good at it. Now they feel defeated.

I asked the young lady who said she epically failed the test, “When you came to a question you were unsure of, what did you do?”

She smiled and said, “I skipped it and after I skipped a few in a row, I just gave up altogether.” One of the boys chimed in and reiterated her response.

Again, I sat in amazement that this was their mindset. I then brought things back to real life and wanted to know how they handle obstacles or difficulties in their daily lives. All three of them responded, “The same way. If it’s too hard, I just quit and do something else.”

At this point, my mouth is open with amazement and I had to ask, “So what about perseverance and overcoming obstacles? What about problem solving and trying to find solutions to whatever obstacles you encounter?”

Again, almost in unison, they said, “No way, that’s doing too much. It’s easier to quit and do something else.”

My final question to them was, “What if this was something that was necessary to get completed in order for you to graduate or continue having a job, so you HAD to find a solution?”

“Well, I just wouldn’t graduate then or I would have to find another job,” said the young lady.

At this point I had run out of time to dive deeper into this issue as the class had completed the quiz and we were getting ready to transition into the lesson for the day. However, I went home and for the next two nights was bothered by this conversation.

I enjoy problems—well, let me rephrase that—I enjoy finding solutions to things but I do not ultimately enjoy having a lot of problems. For the most part in my life I try to limit opportunities to encounter issues by being proactive and thinking through as many decisions during the day I can before I make my final one. I do not know if this was something I was specifically taught, witnessed from the adults around me growing up, or innately had that helps me every day get through things.

I hate that so many of my students who encounter struggles tend to run away from their problems only to realize they are still there when they return. I want to find a way to teach/show my students how to overcome obstacles, whether they are big or small. I want them to value education and value that the majority of people who succeed in life are lifelong learners and are always finding ways to push themselves and challenge themselves in new and innovative ways. Are these struggles because they are afraid? If so, afraid of what? How do we take people out of their comfort zones and expose them to opportunities to grow and learn when they are so shut down and resistant beforehand. Pulling someone in kicking and screaming is not helpful either as their mind is not open to learning tend to be locked in a fixed mindset.

Speaking of fixed vs growth mindsets. The school I currently work at has quite a few teachers who preach a growth mindset. However, I am yet to hear how that can be and should be applied to our students. They tend to say they need to think about things differently. Now, that is something I totally agree with in that we live in a world of perceptions and how we as individuals perceive things leads to our beliefs on the issues. However, the perceptions I have are based on my life experiences and obstacles that I have encountered and either overcame, backtracked from or found an alternate route to get around. It is hard for me to see how we can arbitrarily get someone to see things the way I see it if they are of a fixed mindset and I am of a growth mindset. Is the glass half empty or half full? I mean, dang, aren’t we both right? A growth mindset to me fits into my beliefs of being lifelong learners and persevering through any and all challenges. This is not how my students feel or what the majority of the people in the communities they live in feel. They are very content with living off the government or doing illegal things to make ends meet.

I only have my students about 8 hours a day in school and really only about 80 minutes of that day as they have other classes and other teachers who may or may not feel the same way I do. They may preach a growth mindset too but does it align with my views? Should they in the first place? Does it matter if they do if it's still about having a growth mindset?

I am having a hard time finding solutions to these questions. What does everyone else think? Can we teach this? If so, when should we start? Is this more of a societal and community thing and something that teachers shouldn’t need to deal with?

I will get off my soapbox now but encountering these issues truly makes me wonder if I am making enough of an impact as a teacher or is there something else I could be doing to impact more lives on a continual basis? Until next time…

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Why Are Students Afraid to Fail?
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