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Teaching Strategies: The Bad Kind of Permission to Fail

Jordan Catapano

We give our students permission for all kinds of things—bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, grabbing Kleenex. But do you know that we give our students permission to do things by not saying something, too? It may sound a bit confusing at first, but take a second to give it some thought. By not saying something, we give kids permission to sleep when we don’t wake them up, to be distracted when we don’t redirect, and—most tragically—permission to fail.

Yes, it is possible to give students permission to fail and it’s certainly not the type of permission we’re happy to grant. Most of the time, we may not even be aware that we’re doing it—which is actually even more alarming. As teachers, we have to consider how responsible we truly are if and when any of our students fail.

Two Types of Failure

There are two teaching strategies of failure that we have to be cognizant of: The first failure comes from trying, but not hitting the mark. The second (and undoubtedly more dangerous) involves  not trying at all.

If students are trying and failing, then there is hope using teaching strategies with them to take advantage of their intrinsic motivation will be enough for measurable improvement. As a sign, these students may actually exhibit physical discouragement—an acknowledgement that they put forth earnest effort, but didn’t receive their intended result. In this instance, we often allow students to redo work, receive extra feedback, or meet with us one-on-one to receive academic coaching.

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Whichever method (or combination of teaching strategies) you choose, be sure to maintain positivity and a healthy level of encouragement amidst a stern dosage of academia. In many cases, it also helps to loop in parents to ensure they are getting similar treatment at home.

The more dangerous type of failure is a bit more difficult to diagnose. What’s your response when this becomes the case for a student in your class?

Although the remedies may vary, the worst thing you can do in that scenario is lose hope. As frustrating as it may be to deal with, no student is a lost cause—even if they refuse to see how important their education can be in the grand scheme. Similar to the first type of failure, it may help to get parents involved. But instead of just keeping them in the loop, it might actually require you to meet with them in person to draft a game plan for radically changing their child’s vantage point. They may be able to lend more insight as to why their child is resistant to schoolwork—there’s always a threat that unfortunate life scenarios may deter them from school obligations. Try to be understanding and work hard to find a solution that’ll be best for all parties involved.

How We Give Permission

It’s rather obvious, but when a student refuses to complete homework or make a reasonable attempt to demonstrate their knowledge in class, the likely result is failure. As teachers, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves a few questions when this happens:

  • What is our reaction to students who don’t exhibit effort to learn or attempt to show their knowledge?
  • Do we respond, or does the student slip through the cracks?
  • Is this a student’s first time lapsing on assignments or is this a pervasive problem? What should we do in either case?
  • Is their failure also affecting other students in the class?

Once we are able to answer these questions internally, the next step is to act. Doing nothing, as aforementioned, is explicitly how we give our students permission to fail. Aside from getting parents involved, it may help to start with differentiating instruction to see if any new techniques spark some interest with struggling students. Gamification is also another popular toolkit go-to that can motivate kids to be constructively competitive in class and by consequence, more involved.

If these, or other in-class teaching strategies have no effect, it may help to consult with other facility, a school counselor, and parents about the next course of action.

What Else We Can Do

It’s no news flash to say that all students are different. Some students easily go about thriving in your classroom environment, while others seem to scoff at any effort they’re required to exert within the four walls.

Don’t just chalk this up as one of those “It is what it is” scenarios—you can first and foremost talk to them earnestly. Let them know that you’re concerned about their grades and effort, and that you want to hear their story. Sometimes just allowing your students to vent does wonders.

Let the student know they’re not allowed to fail. Most students will be caught off-guard by such a frank statement, but having an adult decree a no-option scenario puts some pressure on kids to figure it out—and quickly.

It’s essential that you build in support for students to complete requirements. Just telling someone to “try harder” or “do the work” won’t get results—custom-building a solution that serves the students’ needs will. As aforementioned, talk to the student, their parents, and to any administrators or counselors who may become vital components to the solution. Consider what time, coaching, and accountability you can build around that student to support them.

In either case, failure is a difficult situation to deal with and an even trickier one to solve. Although failure can never be 100% your fault, you have a duty to at least examine the ways that you can tweak your teaching to better suit your struggling students. Remember to be observant and introspective about your approaches and don’t be shy about getting other faculty (and family) involved where necessary—we’re all trying to ensure each of our students succeed this year and beyond.

What do you do to intervene with a potentially failing student? Leave a comment for us below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website


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