A fear of failure

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:

Do you encounter students who say they ‘don’t care’? Caroline Sherwood says that this is often nothing more than a fear of failure...

They say: “I don’t care”.

They mean: “I’m scared”.

When asking one of my year 10 boys to focus on his preparations for his upcoming exam and explaining that by preparing well he will be successful, he replied with: “I don’t care. I don’t care about the exam. And I don’t care about doing well.”

I didn’t believe him. “Okay,” I replied. “I’ll care enough for both of us until you’re ready to care.” It wasn’t apathy. It wasn’t defiance. It was fear.

A truly inspiring assistant headteacher I worked with some years ago once said to me: “Every child wants to succeed, every child wants to do well.”

I suppose it is human nature to dislike failure, but for some (perhaps particularly those with a fixed mindset), failing presents a huge – a vast – psychological threat.

Students’ motivation to avoid failure exceeds their motivation to succeed. When success feels a million miles away and utterly impossible (even when it isn’t), students sabotage their chances and ultimately fail on purpose.

Students may subconsciously look for ways to mitigate the ramifications of failure – by not preparing for an upcoming exam they can use the excuse: “Well I didn’t prepare for it, so I didn’t do well.”

This is because failure for some is more than feeling angry or disappointed – it is linked to feelings of shame, which is commonly known as a toxic emotion. Shame bypasses the effort you put into a task and the actions you chose to take and targets who you are; shame attacks self-esteem, identity and wellbeing.

In Wounded by School, Kristin Olson suggests that teachers should have very high standards, “because you believe it is possible for (your students) to grow into it”. Having interviewed disengaged students, they said it was that teacher who “believed they could do so much more than they thought possible of themselves who really began to change the way they saw the world and their own place in it”. She adds: “Having someone in your life who holds you to high standards and believes you can achieve is so critical.”

Here are just three ways to show your students you have high expectations of them and believe in them.

Give them second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Students must see that no matter what they do, they can do better – both academically and behaviourally. Ensure all feedback focuses on behaviour, choices, effort and the process rather than the person.

Let them see that failing is part of learning. Let your students see you fail and learn from it. Get it wrong and be explicit about it. Value your own mistakes. Use every opportunity available to you to ask your students: what have you learnt from your mistakes?

Teach your students that intelligence and ability can be grown, but that it is not always easy – and believe it yourself.

Avoid talking about your students with other staff with a fixed mindset: “He’ll never get a C.” This type of thinking is damaging and will make its way into your classroom.

You can’t fake believing in your students; you can’t fake caring for them and their futures. At least, not convincingly.

Remember: every child wants to succeed. Every child wants to do well. If they are finding the journey to success so unmanageable and so frightening they may well tell you that they “don’t care”.

But they do. More than you’ll ever know.

  • Caroline Sherwood works at South Molton Community College in Devon; she began her teaching career 12 years ago in Kent before moving to the South West.


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