Wednesday, 10 September 2014

If you succeed and no-one sees you have you still succeeded...?

I read this quote the other day from Bradley J Sugars and as I have been teaching I have been thinking more and more about it... 

       A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more                                   than an hour of praise after success 

This has got me thinking about praise and success hence this question, if a person succeeds and there's no-one to praise them have they still succeeded? 

I guess firstly it is about how we define success. This is always an interesting conversation... what does success mean to you. I know some people who by many counts would be seen as successful and yet they don't see it themselves or feel that they haven't quite attained what they should have. Part of this might be that these people are committed goal setters and once they achieve one goal they already have their eyes on the next one? I also wonder if it is that success is really a personal thing and that it evolves and changes as our lives do. 

Success is defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose with synonyms like victory and triumph. 

I am all for celebrating the successes in our lives. Last year I had finally completed my PostGrad teaching qualification, I had been chipping away at it for a number of years whilst full time working, travelling a lot and having our little boy. When I finished I was hugely relieved and although I was studying by distance I chose to go to graduation... this was a moment for me, a public place where I had a private celebration of something significant for me personally.  

However, if we are only looking at the big victories at the end of a venture then we miss the opportunity to celebrate the learning from the journey. And sometimes when you are working through things encouragement is really helpful, I know it was for me as I was under pressure with my study and thinking of giving up. 

And this brings me to the question I asked earlier... do we always need someone praising us to know we have succeeded? It usually feels good to have people notice when we do something well but if we only feel success when others notice then we have created quite a difficult life for ourselves as our personal measure of success is externally defined not internally. We are relying on others for our sense of self worth. 

One of my pet bug bears as a teacher is when the children come to me and ask "have I finished yet?" My response is usually something like "I don't know, have you?" A question like this is indicative of a couple of things: 

  1. they don't know why they are doing the work or what the expectations for the work are 
  2. they don't know what they are capable of or what their best effort looks like
  3. they have become dependent on others to define when their work is 'good enough'

I would prefer that they were coming to me asking "this is what I have done so far, I am not sure what a next step could be, can you help me?" or "I am feeling stuck, can I talk with you about this?"
This then opens an opportunity for me to provide support and encouragement and empower them to have ownership over their own efforts. 

We need to identify ways to help our students without debilitating their development of self management. Some of this comes back to what we do as teachers- making sure we are explicit about our expectations, that we co-construct learning outcomes or rubrics so they can self monitor with clear guidelines that are meaningful for them. A lot of this comes back to understanding our learners and what motivates them and then helping them to understand their own needs, interests and growing talents. We also need to help them identify when personal best is important and when it is OK to slacken off... we all have times when we give a little less than we could, perhaps we are tired, under stress, feeling sad or unwell, or just not interested in a particular topic at that particular time, but if we operated like this all the time our talents would still be hidden under their bushels and we wouldn't get much done. So we manage our time and energy, our students need to be able to learn to do this too, in fact I would like to think the people I work with will be better at it than I am so I can learn from them!  

And they need to experience failure along with success, it is an important part of developing a growth mindset, learning that the journey is important and valuing the learning along the way. If we tie our self esteem to success and victory alone then we are exposing ourselves to unnecessary vulnerability, especially if our measure of success is based on the reactions of others. Karen Boyes has written an excellent blog about embracing failure in learning that discusses this in depth and provides great food for thought as well as some useful tips to support learners in embracing failure. 

Here are just a few questions I am asking myself at the moment so I thought I would share them here too.

  • What does success look like for you? 
  • Do you celebrate your successes? If so how? How long does the good feeling last? 
  • Do you ever celebrate failures? If so how? 
  • Is there a difference better encouragement and praise? If so what is it? 

Why is learning so scary- Karen Boyes-
What would you do for a sticker- an earlier post-


  1. this is great Meg - yes - it drives me crazy how many students can't move to the next step without acknowledgement - so disempowered - sigh...

    1. I am thinking that the more we reflect on why we do the things we do the better we, as teachers, are able to adapt our responses to support learners to develop their independence. We do need time to do that reflection and reading and reflecting again. When I reflect back on my early years as a teacher I am pretty sure I have moved miles and have a much greater awareness of what I am doing, although I still have a long way to go.