Feeling Failure

And learning from it.

October 8, 2014

It’s a moment that’s familiar to most of us in higher education. The end of the semester has come, the final papers are in, grades are posted, and I am facing a freshman young woman in tears. She has never failed a class before, and she’s just been told that she failed my college composition class.

To her credit, she takes responsibility for her failure. She knows that she procrastinated on the final paper, missed the deadline, and despite my constant reminders, she failed the class due to her own negligence. She says her mother has threatened to pull her out of school if she fails a class.  She is afraid that this might mean the end of college for her when she has just gotten started.

This is a moment that I dread.  Having these personal confrontations with students when they are coping with messy emotions drives many teachers to hide during the last days of a semester.  Recently, I’ve come to realize that helping students work with these emotions is as important as teaching them where to place commas or how to format citations.  

We all fail. Maybe we haven’t failed a class, but at some point in our lives, we all fail in some way. It’s part of being human, and for these young adults, it’s an inevitable part of the reality they face in a world where bankruptcy, foreclosure, lay-offs, and divorce happen even to responsible, hard-working adults with college degrees.  

Failure is an emotional experience.  When I reflect on my own failures, feelings of guilt, anger, sorrow, and regret come to the surface. This same emotional turbulence is common for our students.  In some cases, we see it when it spills out in angry outbursts or tears, but more often than not, students hide it from us out of fear of appearing weak or experiencing further rejection.

I recently interviewed some students about their experiences with grades to try to gain a better understanding of how they cope with these difficult emotions that arise. One student explained why she avoided talking to her teacher about a grade she disagreed with:  I didn’t really want to say anything because I didn’t want to argue.  Not that we would have been arguing.  I just . . . didn’t say anything.  I was really angry.”  Another student explained how his fear of talking to his teacher about his low grades resulted in failing a class:  “In some cases, I cut off my teachers.  I won’t talk to them.  I won’t ask them questions.  This happened to me just last semester.  I failed a class because I wasn’t comfortable asking questions after a certain point.  But, it wasn’t because of the teacher.  It was more because of me and it just . . . the grades . . . and then it just snowballed and then I had to repeat the class.”

Like most teachers, I strive to grade fairly and use grades combined with written feedback to provide students with an accurate evaluation of their work and progress in my class.  But if we really want to address the topic of grades with students, maybe we need to understand that grades are not just rational – they are emotional.  My freshman composition student knew all of the reasons that she failed my class and even took personal responsibility.  But the tears were still there.  She still felt sad and guilty and angry with herself.  In that moment, I handed her a tissue, took a deep breath, and said, “I feel sad about this, too.”

Many in academia would see that admission as an act of self-sabotage.  As educators, we are supposed to be unemotional and unflappable as we transmit information and promote critical thinking.  However, I believe ignoring the emotional existence of my students is a betrayal of their essential humanity.  As Palmer states in his recent book The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, “Show me a classroom ‘devoid of feelings’ and I will show you a classroom in which feelings have been driven underground, where they will do more harm than good to the educational process.”

Of course handling emotions appropriately is an important part of adulthood, too.  We can’t just curl up in the corner and have a good cry every time someone hurts our feelings, especially in the professional setting.  This is all the more reason why educators have a prime opportunity to assist students in learning to navigate the treacherous territory of emotions.  

While this may seem like a daunting mission, I have found that making a few simple changes in my perspective has created some surprising teachable moments with my students.  First, I allow for the emotions that come up, particularly in moments of failure.  I simply accept that they are there, even if a student tries to hide them behind a façade of belligerence, withdrawal, or apathy.  Second, I create a safe means of expression for those feelings.  This means I have to be transparent about my own feelings or past experiences with failure.  It may feel uncomfortable to share my own humanity with students, but I believe when this is done appropriately, it helps students to consider how they articulate and work with their own emotions.  Third, I coach students on channeling these emotions into motivation to make positive changes.  An emotion like anger generates a lot of energy that can be directed toward setting better goals and forming determination for future success.  These ideas may not work for every teacher or every situation.  Ultimately, I’m simply advocating that we need to think about how we teach students to deal with failure.  Maybe this is a neglected opportunity to change lives for the better in a critical moment, and maybe we have more to offer than we might think just by relating to what a student is feeling.

Jaime O’Connor has over twelve years of higher ed experience in both faculty and administrative roles. She currently works as an independent consultant on curriculum development, assessment, and accreditation. Feel free to visit her blog at http://itineranteducator.blogspot.com/ or contact her at jaime.oconnor@gmail.com.



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