How to Stop Being Ashamed of Failure

a ginger cat covering its face in shame

Failure is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be a source of shame. If you fail at something, it doesn’t make you a failure; it’s an event, not an identity. And we all fail, so why not give yourself permission to be human?

In Everything Is Figureoutable, Marie Forleo offers a lovely way of redefining failure:

F.A.I.L. = “Faithful Attempt In Learning”1

So when we fail, we can understand that it just means we were attempting to grow. Growth is often a struggle, and that struggle often involves failure, but it’s worth it. Remember, struggle makes you stronger.

As I’ve said before, mistakes and failures are learning opportunities – they’re actually good. That doesn’t mean they feel good, but if we understand their value, then we can feel a little better about them. Learning requires risk, and sometimes learning hurts (and not just when you fall off your bike).

So move forward with both humility and confidence: the humility to know you’ll sometimes fail and the confidence to know that you’ll eventually figure it out.

Don’t avoid failure and don’t fear it. When you inevitably do fail, don’t be ashamed. Instead, heed the wisdom of Samuel Beckett:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

1 Forleo, Marie. Everything Is Figureoutable. Porfolio, 2019.

2  Schlottman, Andrea. Samuel Beckett: Fail Better and “Worstward Ho!”

How to Check Online Grades

a student staring anxiously at her online grades

One of the hallmarks of modern student life is online grades. Unlike the pre-digital world I grew up in, most schools now maintain a running record of students’ grades in each of their classes. This can be a useful resource for students, tutors, and parents if they know how to check online grades effectively. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to check online grades effectively, you can easily wind up wasting your time and creating unnecessary frustration.

So in this article, I’m going to explain how to check online grades in such a way that leads to better academic outcomes for students and better relationships between students, parents, teachers, and tutors.

Students

The first rule of checking online grades is to actually do it. Some students simply forget to check. Others deliberately avoid checking. If you do this, you’ll miss out on critical data about your performance as a student.

However, the second rule of checking online grades is to do it sparingly. Don’t check compulsively, all the time. A couple of times a week is probably enough. The grades don’t get updated every hour, so there’s no reason to check multiple times per day. At best, compulsive grade checking will be a waste of time. At worst, it will give you anxiety.

The third rule is to know what you’re looking for. And what you’re looking for is surprises. Surprises are things like:

  • Grades that suddenly went up or down
  • Missing work or missing quiz/test grades
  • You thought you turned an assignment in on time, but it’s marked as missing.
  • You thought you did the entire assignment, but it’s marked as incomplete.
  • You thought you did well on an assignment, but the grade is much lower than expected.
  • You thought you aced that test, but you actually didn’t.
  • You thought you failed that test, but you actually did well.

Most of these surprises will be upsetting. But you need to be aware of them so you can deal with them and learn from them. When a student is avoiding looking at their grades, it’s usually because they know the grades are low. They may know they have a lot of missing assignments, and they don’t want to face that problem head-on. But the sooner you take an honest look at your situation, the sooner you can get to work making a change. Teachers are generally much more forgiving if you address problems right away rather than a month or two later.

For missing work, you’ll often be able to resolve it by simply going into the school’s online portal, finding the assignment, completing it, and turning it in. If there are many missing assignments, make a list. For cases where you cannot find the missing assignment, you’ll need to ask your teacher about it.

For assignments with lower-than-expected grades or those marked as incomplete, the first step is to review the instructions. Did you do everything that was asked? Did you do everything in the way that they asked you to? If not, you might be able to make corrections or complete the assignment for a higher grade. If you still think you did everything correctly, talk with your teacher. If you’re confused about why you received the grade you did, you’ll need to ask for better feedback.

For missing tests and quizzes, you’ll need to speak with your teacher about finding a time to make them up. When you’re sure you’ve turned something in on time, but it’s marked as missing, you’ll need to ask about it. (Note: If you turned it in late, it won’t be graded right away, so be patient.)

Anytime you realize you need to ask the teacher about something, you should message the teacher immediately, and you should make yourself a reminder (a planner note or a phone alarm) to talk with them in class or during office hours.

And the last rule of checking online grades for students is don’t use them as your primary resource for learning about assignments. If you do, you’ll mostly find out about due dates after they have passed, and you’ll constantly be playing catch-up. Instead, use the school’s online portal and what the teacher says in class to learn about current and future homework. Record these assignments in a planner or on a to-do list. That way, you’ll usually be ahead of the game, and there will be fewer surprises when you check your grades.

Tutors

Before we get into how parents should look at online grades, let’s discuss how we here at Northwest Educational Services do it because the way our tutors check online grades is a good model for how parents should do it.

a tutor and student checking grades together

The first thing is, we check with the student. It’s an activity we do together. Thus, we’re not “spying” on their grades or coming at them with a list of missing work that we found by checking in their absence. Parents – this alone goes a long way toward eliminating any combativeness around discussing grades.

The second thing is, we make it clear that this is not an opportunity for us to judge or criticize them. We’re checking out of curiosity. And we also make it clear that we’re not actually curious about the grades themselves. Instead, we’re interested in the extent to which they’re engaging with learning and schoolwork, and we’re using their grades as data about these things. Are they keeping up with the workload and playing the game of school? Are they preparing for quizzes and tests? Are they doing as well as they would like to do?

And that last question really brings us to the issue of ownership. The student owns their grade. And that means they get to decide how to react to it. For some students, getting a C on a test is a disaster. For others, getting a C would be a huge accomplishment. So we don’t automatically assume any meaning when we see a particular grade. Instead, we might simply ask, “How do you feel about that?” And then let their response guide the conversation. If they’re not doing as well as they would like, we extend an open invitation to talk about it. We let them know that we’re here to help, but we don’t force-feed them advice.

And we don’t just look at “bad” or low grades. We look at all of them, every time. We don’t just troubleshoot the things that are going poorly. We also celebrate what’s going well. In particular, we celebrate improvements in productivity, engagement, follow-through, and learning. When we see improvement, we try to get the student to name what they did differently to reinforce the positive change. Done right, online grade checking is another opportunity to help students develop a growth mindset.

Parents

a mother and daughter checking grades together

Parents should strongly consider adopting all of the practices I just described for tutors. But they should also be aware that tutors have it easier. The relationship between a parent and a child (especially a teenager) is typically fraught with far more emotional baggage than that of a tutor and a student. Checking grades together might feel like walking through a minefield, especially if you’ve developed a pattern of combativeness around school conversations. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

As with students, you shouldn’t be checking all the time either. Once a week is plenty. And you have to be patient with the system and with the teachers, in addition to being patient with your child. Missing work doesn’t get graded and entered into the system the moment your child turns it in. So if your child says that a missing assignment is turned in and awaiting a grade, trust them, and let it go for now. If it’s still marked as missing a couple of weeks later, well, then you get to have a conversation with your child about what’s going on. But again, start from a place of trust. Assume that they’ve turned it in and the teacher just needs a reminder to grade it. Encourage them to talk with their teacher.

Getting to a place where you and your child can look at their grades together in a calm, productive manner will take practice. And it will only work if you’re genuinely curious and nonjudgmental. Your child may initially be very resistant to the process and hesitant to open up, especially if they’re struggling, but it will get better eventually. Remember, trust takes time.

The Upside of “Bad” Teachers

A rainbow over a roof in need of repair

No one is perfect. There are no perfect students. There are no perfect parents. And there are no perfect teachers.

And yet, despite knowing this fact, we routinely forget it and fail to give one another permission to be human. Students hold themselves to unrealistically high standards. Parents judge themselves harshly when they fall short of their imagined ideal. And when teachers are less than perfect, both students and parents are quick to throw them under the bus.

Most teachers are fine.

Bad teachers exist, but they are not the majority. As in any profession, most teachers are pretty solid, some are exceptional, and some are inadequate.

Plus, most teachers have chosen their career out of a passion for helping children learn or a passion about the content they teach, often both. They’re not in it for the money, and they’re not in it to satisfy some sadistic desire to torture children with boring lectures and tedious assignments. (Many students wrongly assume that their teachers hate children and live to punish them.) The vast majority of teachers care deeply about their work and want nothing more than to help their students succeed. Some are more skilled than others, but most of them are trying their best to do good in a difficult and often underappreciated position.

Now, since the vast majority of teachers are pretty good, if it seems like you mostly have bad teachers, the problem is probably not them. The problem is more likely your choices and your mindset.

Before you blame, self-reflect.

Regardless of whether or not the teacher is truly inadequate, claiming that you have a bad teacher usually goes hand-in-hand with being unhappy about your outcomes in the class – either grade outcomes or learning outcomes. And in such cases, if your only takeaway from the situation is that the teacher is “bad,” then you’re missing out on a serious opportunity for self-reflection.

a man looking at himself in the mirror

It’s uncomfortable to consider the role that you, as a student, have played in the low grade or the lack of learning that you’re upset about, but it’s important to think about.

How could you have taken the learning into your own hands? Did you utilize all available resources in order to understand the material? Did you use effective study techniques?

When you got low grades and didn’t understand why, did you ask for better feedback? Did you engage your executive function skills and tools in order to manage due dates and expectations?

How could you have been a more proactive student?

This self-reflection is critical for two reasons:

  • You may have “bad” teachers again in the future and considering these questions will help you have a better experience.
  • These are empowering questions to ask in any class, regardless of the quality of the instructor.

If you just throw your hands in the air and say, “They’re a terrible teacher; there was nothing I could do,” you’re missing out on a huge opportunity for growth.

Furthermore, the claim that a teacher is “bad” is often a defense mechanism: The student is ashamed of their performance, and it feels safer to point the finger of blame than to accept their own responsibility for the situation.

Parents do this too.

When you see your child struggling, you might find it more comfortable to blame the teacher than to address the problem at home. But before you throw the teacher under the bus, ask yourself the following questions:

Again, don’t expect yourself to be perfect, but know that doing these things will be far more helpful to your child than blaming everything on the teacher. Please know, too, that throwing the teacher under the bus in front of your children (or within earshot of them) encourages them to be passive victims rather than active agents. Whether their teachers are good or bad, we want students to be empowered to take charge of their own learning.

Bad teachers are real.

Now, as I said, some teachers are legitimately inadequate.

Some teachers are poor instructors – unskilled at explaining things or failing to utilize effective teaching techniques. Others choose to barely teach at all, opting to have students learn on their own using videos and handouts.

Some teachers are disorganized and unskilled at planning ahead. Others are unclear about their expectations and due dates. Some teachers give woefully inadequate feedback. Some barely give feedback at all. Some take months to grade things. (My AP Literature teacher senior year never graded our major essay for the first semester.)

There are teachers who don’t understand learning differences, such as dyslexia, and refuse to provide appropriate accommodations. And on rare occasions, you can get a teacher who is so disenchanted with their career that they’ve simply checked out because they don’t care anymore.

The good news is that, in all of these cases, there is a hidden benefit. Bad teachers, like anything challenging in life, can be a blessing in disguise.

A bad teacher is an opportunity.

The Stoics taught that obstacles on your path forward are actually essential parts of the path; the struggle to overcome them makes you stronger and teaches you much-needed skills. A bad teacher is no different.

If it becomes clear that you really do have a bad teacher, see it as an opportunity for growth. If the teacher doesn’t teach effectively (or at all), use that as an opportunity to practice independent learning.

an older student working independently in a library

You’ll need this skill later in life every time you decide to learn something outside of a classroom. Most adults today change careers several times, and you’ll probably have to do it even more as the world keeps changing faster and faster. Knowing how to learn what you need to know on your own will give you a leg up in tomorrow’s competitive economy.

If the teacher doesn’t provide good resources, use that as an opportunity to practice resourcefulness. Seek out good sources of information online or at the library. Buy a cheap, used textbook. Seek out help from other students or tutors. Your teacher is not the only source of information for the class, and it’s up to you to go find what you need.

Good organizational habits and planner use are extra necessary when a course is disorganized and due dates are unclear. Good study habits and techniques are extra necessary when the instructor is sub-par. Self-advocacy skills are extra necessary when the teacher doesn’t provide accommodations or give quality feedback.

A bad teacher is an opportunity to practice all of these essential skills, so when you have a bad teacher, don’t get upset – get better.