On Failure and Fear in the Classroom

In a recent blog post, Nicole Matos, an English professor who writes extensively on student experience and pedagogy, shares valuable feedback from students in her developmental writing courses. Matos (2017) prompted this feedback by asking them a deceptively simple question: “What do you really, really wish your professors understood?” (para. 1).

Among the several answers students provided, one strikes me as particularly powerful and especially relevant to any instructor who encounters at-risk or “breakaway” (Jaschik, 2017, para. 1) students: “Don’t take our failures personally.”

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Matos (2017) identifies the cognitive dissonance this situation creates: “[students] recognized — but also somewhat resented — that we [instructors] tend to hold a deep love for our subject, and unconsciously affirm it above all other demands. But students have fragmented, split lives, with many competing priorities, including finding transportation, maintaining housing, and putting food on the table.” (para. 13).

Matos’s point isn’t always easy for us to accept, especially if we see it as our duty to pre-professionalize students by holding them to the norms and mores of workplace culture.

It may help to supplement Matos’s analysis with Lauren Herckis’s recent study of faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. Herckis researched faculty’s reluctance to innovate their teaching, concluding that faculty are remarkably protective of their own ethos, or “personal identity affirmation” (qtd. in Matthews, 2017, para. 7). Put another way, faculty tend to be risk-averse because they are terrified to fail in front of their students.

In my experience, fear of students on the part of faculty (full-time as well as adjunct) is a serious and under-appreciated problem in many areas of higher education today.

As a dean, I have witnessed this fear first-hand, and as a faculty member I have certainly felt it myself.

The common denominator between Matos and Herckis is failure, or rather perceptions about how failure will be received.

And yet failure can be a crucial part of the cognitive process, especially in the area of perseverance. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) remind us that “people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery” (p. 91).

If we maintain a steady commitment to ongoing development in the area of research-based teaching, we’re going to fail, maybe spectacularly, as we try to innovate. And that’s ok. Perhaps then it will be easier for us to interpret our students’ missed deadlines and absenteeism as teachable moments or turning points. Or at the very least, constructively failing now and then ourselves may help us respect students’ right to fail without us having to take that failure personally and add the weight of undue judgement to the burdens many of our students face.

If you have any experience translating your constructive teaching failures into teachable moments, please consider sharing them in the comments section below.

Happy teaching!



Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The Science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Jaschik, S. (2017, July 26). “Breakaway Learners”: Author discusses her new book about promoting success of at-risk students. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/26/author-discusses-her-new-book-how-colleges-can-help-risk-students-succeed?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=7c2537cc65-DNU20170726&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-7c2537cc65-199397225&mc_cid=7c2537cc65&mc_eid=e9be9f951a

Matos, N. (2017, Aug. 15). “Don’t Take Our Failures Personally.” ChronicleVitae. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1880-don-t-take-our-failures-personally?utm_source=ACUE+Community&utm_campaign=fbcfa5ca00-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_08_24&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b39ffec948-fbcfa5ca00-95933073

Matthews, D. (2017, July 6). “Fear of Looking Stupid”: Anthropologist offers explanation for why faculty members hesitate to adopt innovative teaching methods. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/06/anthropologist-studies-why-professors-dont-adopt-innovative-teaching-methods


About the Author

Matthew Vickless is dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies and an assistant professor of English and communications at Central Penn College. He is a contributing editor to The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, volume 4 (The Songs and Sonnets) (Indiana University Press, forthcoming) and is a recipient of the Central Penn College President’s Award for Faculty Excellence.

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