Parents and teachers — the source of students’ fear of failure … says educational excellence coach


Where does students’ fear of failure come from? By Daniel Wong | Yahoo! SingaporeScene – Wed, Aug 15, 2012

Through my work as an education excellence coach and speaker, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with thousands of students.
Students often tell me that the words “test” and “exam” strike terror in their hearts. They say things like:
“I can’t afford to mess up this test!”
“I’ll cry if I fail this exam.”
“I’ll be crushed if I don’t get an ‘A’.”
It’s necessary to evaluate how much students have learned over the course of a semester, but surely tests and exams shouldn’t elicit so many feelings of anxiety and dread?
Education today isn’t characterized by a sense of discovery and exploration. Neither is it characterized by a spirit of curiosity.
Why education is scary
Instead, it’s characterized by fear.
Fear of losing out. Fear of exams. Fear of disappointment. Fear of failure.
I used to think that I understood exactly where these fears came from.
We live in a competitive environment with a challenging job market. Parents have high expectations of their children. Our society places a heavy emphasis on performance and achievement.
That’s the full explanation, I thought.
But I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: Teachers.
“The fear of failure begins in the teacher”
Please don’t get me wrong; I greatly admire the work that teachers do. My friends who are teachers are some of the most patient, kind and diligent people I know.
Personally, I don’t have what it takes to do a teacher’s job.
To all of you teachers out there who are reading this: Keep up the excellent work!
A few months ago, I wrote an article, in which I observed that many successful people have succeeded in spite of school, not because of it.
In response to my article, a good friend of mine, who’s a teacher, wrote:
“… the fear of failure begins in the teacher. That’s the root of the issue in our education system. One of the indicators to measure a teacher’s performance is the student’s grades.
More often than not, the teacher is blinded to the student’s fear of failure because it is more daunting to come to terms with the fact that the fear stems from us [teachers].
When we deny our own condition, we fail to see what is happening in the student because it reminds us of who … we really are.”
Powerfully written.
Teaching is an extremely noble calling, but teachers do have a part to play in causing students to fear failure.
No university degree = meaningless life?
I recently spoke to a teacher (I’ll call him Michael) who spent many years teaching at a school where the students were not very academically inclined.
In relating his experience to me, Michael remarked, “Most of my students never made it to university. Their lives will never amount to much.”
Their lives will never amount to much.
It troubled me deeply that those words came out of Michael’s mouth so smoothly, so effortlessly, so naturally.
It was as if the gospel truth is that if you don’t have a university degree, then your life will—without a doubt—”never amount to much”.
I don’t believe that to be the case at all.
Each of us is running a race, but the goal shouldn’t be to finish first. Rather, the goal should be to finish well, to lead a meaningful life that you can be proud of and to make a difference in the lives of others.
I wonder how many teachers share Michael’s sentiment?
I’m concerned that the teachers who do might just give up on their students who don’t demonstrate an aptitude for academic subjects, even though these same students might be gifted in other areas like sport, music or dance.

Fish trying to climb a tree
Teachers who believe that education is primarily about certificates, diplomas and degrees are likely to instill in their students a fear of tests and exams.
Eventually, their students will fear learning, because learning has become synonymous with those terrifying exams.
It’s Albert Einstein who wisely observed: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
All of us are worth so much more than the educational qualifications that we write down on our CV.
The three stages in overcoming the fear of failure
If we want to help students overcome the fear of failure, we need to first recognize that there are three stages in the journey: Approval, Acceptance and Adventure.
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, sibling or friend, you have a role to play in encouraging students to make it through the three stages.
Many students remain stuck at the Approval stage for their entire academic careers, so we should all support them as they seek to find real happiness and success in their student lives.
Here’s a description of each stage.
Stage 1: Approval
At this stage, students seek the approval of their parents and teachers. They want to do well in school to make other people happy. They’re afraid of doing poorly because of the displeasure their parents and teachers will express.
Stage 2: Acceptance
Stage 2 is where students begin to accept themselves fully—their strengths, talents, shortcomings and inadequacies. They become more purpose-driven in their pursuits, and aren’t so fixated on their performance.
Stage 3: Adventure
When students begin to see education as an adventure of discovery, they become intrinsically motivated. They work hard to be the best they can be, instead of trying to be better than their peers. At Stage 3, students see failure not as something to be feared, but rather as something to be embraced. They understand that failure is an integral part of the success journey.
In closing…
The fear of failure is something we all grapple with. It’s a battle that begins at childhood, and it’s one that will last a lifetime.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t equip our students with the skills and mindset to fight a winning battle.
Every one of us—not just teachers—can do our part to help students feel the fear but face it bravely anyway.
Whenever we talk about education, let’s not forget that students’ well-being is at stake. Lives are at stake. The future of our country is at stake.
So let’s get to work.
Daniel Wong is the author of “The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success”. He writes regularly about topics related to education, career and personal development at Living Large.

6 thoughts on “Parents and teachers — the source of students’ fear of failure … says educational excellence coach”

  1. Growing up in a university town, with university-educated parents in professional jobs, I think I thought that was the only way to live. I’m quite sure I looked down on the idea of blue-collar or working class jobs. But when I lived and taught in Japan, I really began to appreciate how much pride people can take in their work, no matter what it is, and how much energy they can put into their passions as hobbies. My one adult student worked at the supermarket. But that was not the beginning and end of her story. She also played an important role in the lives of her grandchildren, she attended English language classes, and was the passionate leader of the volunteer English guide group. I don’t know if she went to university. I doubt it. But I looked at her and saw a fulfilled and happy person who takes pride in and finds great joy in the variety of things she does.

  2. You know Ingrid I was thinking the same thing. I was thinking of a separate article on mentoring, apprenticeship, the shokunin craftsman spirit of excellence. Also after having just read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mum, this particular article also authored by a Chinese author, shows perhaps the limitations of Chinese thinking or mindset regarding success.

  3. I also read that book. On the one hand she had a point: I think people let kids off the hook too easily and then they don’t learn any sort of perseverance. I didn’t want to do ballet when I was six, but my mother just said “Well, you will.” And I kind of liked it in the end. When I was around ten or eleven she said I could quit if I wanted, but I said I’d see out primary school and quit then (age thirteen) so I can try other things in high school. I do think Tiger Mother was a bit extreme. A sort of Type A style of parenting implemented by a very Type A person. Japan was kind of paradoxical. On the one hand I found kids who honestly put “I want to be happy” as a main priority, and I thought, “Well, that’s quite a healthy ambition in life”, but there’s so much that tries to beat this impulse down–in Japan and the rest of the world.

    1. Yes, well … I think we can still hold children/students to high standards and instill excellence, without tyranny or abuse. Steve Biddulph, author of “Secret of Raising Happy Children” (s-i-c) if I recall correctly said that resorting to abuse (including screaming, shouting, name-calling) is just poor human relations, and I have to agree. At the end of the day, Tiger Mum had one child who accepted her lot, but another who rebelled against the mold made for her and chose to carve her own personality. Not every child in this world is lucky to escape emotionally unscathed by a Tiger Mum. Despite Tiger Mum’s disdain for what she considers weak and namby-pamby parenting, there is plenty evidence of children or youths who are fragile and mentally unstable and who crack under pressure, likely the reason why there are such high rates of suicide among the young in Asia. And contrary to her statements, many Chinese families are highly dysfunctional, with only filial piety holding the family together, or with children merely going through the motions of respect rendered to the elders. But to be fair, the book was about her journey, and I think she understood she came very close to witnessing a mental breakdown in her other daughter following the Julliard interview. I was raised by an unwavering Tiger Mum with the full range of shaming and shouting displays of disapproval and displeasure myself, and while I believe in holding my own children to the pursuit of a spirit of excellence in the core of their undertakings, I could never inflict the same kind of punishing straitjacket lifestyle on my own children. A lifetime of fear, resentment, estrangement and rollercoaster of exhausting emotions, a broken spirit is too high a price to pay. I actually have a cousin who has been in a mental asylum since adolescence as a result of such parenting, the cautionary tale in our family. Scientifically speaking, the detrimental hormonal effects of stress and fear upon memory retrieval, immune systems are well known. One reason why Tiger Mum got away lucky, she had girls, and therefore, more compliant. Meryl Streep played the character of the white Tiger Mum in “Music of the Heart” where both two boys eventually rebelled and switched to playing instruments other than the violin, just so that they could get out from under the thumb of their mother. While I acknowledge that many musicians, Olympians and other sportsmen owe their success to fairly punishing regimes, I do think that the individual has to at some point possibly during adolescence, mentally consent to, and intrinsically accept and agree to such discipline and sacrifice of freedoms, whether for the love of the sport/activity or its future rewards. The more free-spirited obstinate kids will rebel all the way to breaking point and beyond with Tiger parenting.


  4. For my part, I have been and remain impressed by how much pride the Japanese take in their turf, however humble. Like how firemen polish and keep their firetrucks shiny and in tiptop condition, and even more impressive, how clean and shiny they keep their garbage-trucks! When the house-movers come, they lay out the rugs, make sure your flooring or furniture don’t get scuffed, and leave the place as immaculate as they found it. The restaurant and other service industries, other than UNIQLO, however, appear to be in severe and rapid decline. Whereas countries like Singapore, Taiwan or Hong Kong used to look to Japan for the high standards in services, these days you rarely get service with a smile from a waiter or cashier in a Japanese restaurant other than in ryokans. You can now get better service shopping or eating in other Asian countries.

  5. RE Tiger Mom comments: indeed. While I don’t see a problem with structuring some of a child’s activity when they’re younger and doing a bit of forcing for the learning to happen–though not ANYTHING like Tiger Mom–you need to let go eventually. Sooner rather than later in fact. Because yes, the rebellion could make it all fall to pieces.

    And RE Japanese pride in all work: absolutely. Some of my favourite people to meet would be bus drivers or taxi drivers or delivery men… all so pleasant and all so dedicated to good service.

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