fear of failure

I don’t remember very much about my year as a Kindergarten student. One day in particular, however, remains very clear in my memory…

We had just come back from winter break, and the teacher wanted us to draw a picture of something we had done while school was out and accompany our picture with a sentence. She created an example on the board for us to see, drawing a picture of someone with figure skates on their feet and wrote “I went skating” below. 

Everyone quickly set to work on their masterpieces. After pondering all of the activities I had engaged in over the break, I isolated a moment of walking through the mall with my family, and drew a picture of myself holding hands with my dad while shopping. When it came to writing my sentence (which, as Kindergarteners, none of us had mastered; we were simply expected to try and fabricate something that resembled letters and words underneath our drawings) though, I faltered. I noticed classmates going up to the teacher’s desk to show her their work, and she would neatly write what their sentence was attempting to say beside their scribbled “words.” 

Maybe it was the perfectionist in me showing up at a young age, but I just couldn’t bear to have the teacher correct my sentence. I had no idea where to begin in order to write “I went shopping” on my drawing and I can still remember how anxious I felt about my incapability to write my activity coherently and correctly. So rather than making an attempt and risking being wrong, I simply altered my picture to be my father and I in a skating rink (all it took was some blades on the bottom of our shoes and colouring the floor of the mall an icy blue) and meticulously copied the teacher’s “I went skating” sentence underneath my picture. Problem solved. 

Strangely enough, I remember feeling SO guilty for this. I had never gone skating over the break; I was lying! Perhaps this exact situation sticks out to me even more because some mementos from my class’s time capsule were dug up in about Grade 5 and my peers and teachers marvelled at how good my writing was in Kindergarten. The guilt came stabbing back: I hadn’t written that on my own; I had merely copied the exact words the teacher had written on the board. Though I didn’t know what plagiarism was back then, I still realized that, innocent as it was for a Kindergartener, I had still not truly been to credit for the work others found to be advanced. 

Now, as a pre-service teacher, I wonder about what made me just so nervous to be wrong at the tender age of 5. I don’t want my future students to fear giving an answer in Math class like I always did, hoping and praying that it would be right, and feeling crushed if, by some cruel twist of fate, it wasn’t. I want my students to know that mistakes are a vital part of the learning process, and that they learn so much more through being wrong than by always being right. I have no doubt that my fear of failure has moulded me into an accomplished student, but I don’t want this to be the case for my students. Rather than getting right answers in order to simply avoid being wrong (like I did), I want them to fully feel that being what society labels as “wrong” isn’t wrong at all. I want so-called “failure” to motivate them to realize that they are now one step closer to finding success. Maybe we should scrap the words ‘wrong’ and ‘failure’ altogether; in my classroom, there will be no “wrong” answers, but many different paths in order to reach deeper understanding instead.

Do you have any thoughts on how our education system may push students to be afraid of having the “wrong” answer? Did you feel this pressure as a student? What can we, as teachers, do to combat this problem?