Failing Forward: Plan to Succeed This Year by Reflecting on the Past

The last school year long ago came to an end. You are now deep into your summer break, and the last thing you want to do is go back in time. You definitely don’t want to revisit the failures of the previous year as you’re relaxing by the pool or binge-watching your favorite TV shows. But I would like to challenge you to consider that reflecting on last year’s failures can be the springboard to developing a plan to succeed in the new school year. 

In John C. Maxwell’s book Failing Forward, he shares the stories of important people and the many failures they experienced on their way to greatness. The powerful message in each story was that every one of them used their failures to set the path for their overall success. They did this by refusing to give up and reflecting on each failure as a means to cultivate a plan to become better. For example, Colonel Sanders had trouble convincing others that his chicken recipe would have entire households licking their fingers and shouting, “This is good!” He was turned down more than 1,000 times before he met that one person who said, “This is worthy to be shared with the world.” He utilized his failures to push him forward.

The work you do as an educator is challenging, and while you may not have experienced any major “failures,” there are always aspects of our professional lives that we can improve. So, what are they? What are those things you promised yourself you would do differently next year? It may be improving overall test scores, reducing tardiness, or decreasing office referrals. This is where the power of reflection comes into play.

As you begin to reflect on those challenges—or better yet, opportunities—from last year, here are a few steps that will support you in developing a plan to succeed. Grab a notepad and a pen, and let’s take a journey back in time (cue, Huey Lewis’ “Back in Time” now).

Step 1: Reflect on the previous school year. 

Think about your campus or classroom from the start of the day to the very end. Make two columns. On one side, list all of the things that went well and that you considered successful. On the other side, list all of the things that did not go well or were considered failures. For example:

Step 2: Determine the causes of major challenges.

In identifying the challenge, we often forget to determine the root cause of the problem. Without doing this, we’re more likely to repeat past failures. As a leader in my school, I learned a strategy for reflecting on root causes—I call it “fish-boning.” As you can see in the diagram below, the head of the fish is where you place the challenge, and on the scales of the fish you write down any possible cause of the problem you can think of. This is helpful because the last thing you want to do is develop a plan to address your challenge that doesn’t actually resolve the root of the problem. Laying it out in this way, we take the whole picture into account. 

Step 3: Brainstorm and research ideas to address challenges.

This part will require you to do some research. Suppose the challenge you would like to improve is student engagement. What will you need to do to address this?

  • Explore what’s available in the program/curriculum that you teach: Whether you teach READ 180, System 44, or iRead, there are instructional routines embedded in each program designed to ensure students are not only engaged but also actively participating. Within the implementation guide you received during your initial training, there is a section that outlines effective routines that you can introduce in your classroom. In addition, within the resources of the programs, instructional videos model those routines being used with students.
  • Ask a friend: The HMH Educator Community page is one excellent resource you can use to connect with other educators and learn from their expertise. You can also post a question and get suggestions from others who are experiencing success in that area. In addition, consider connecting with a fellow teacher in your building or district. Never discount the power of collaboration as you work together to bounce ideas and thoughts off each other.
  • Think outside the box: Tap into your creative side and try something you’ve never done before. If what you’ve been doing doesn't seem to be working, it’s likely a sign that you should try something different. What’s trending in the world today? For example, ask yourself, “What would Ron Clark do?” You can Google “The Ron Clark Academy to see some of the creative and innovative ways he is reaching this generation of students. You may not be able to duplicate his strategies, but it may help get the creative juices flowing. 
Step 4: Develop and execute a plan.

Now that you’ve explored what's available to you, it’s time to develop your plan. Through your reflections and exploration, you’ve discovered ideas that can be put into place to turn your failures or opportunities into successes. Taking into consideration your teaching style, classroom structure, and goals, it’s time to create your plan.

First of all, you will need to make sure your goal is measurable. What does success look like, and how will you know when you have reached it? When I was being certified in shifting school cultures, I was taught a valuable lesson as a leader: “If you don’t inspect what you expect, then you are expecting failure.” A key part of the successful implementation of your plan is ongoing reflections on what is working and what is not. This can be done daily, weekly, monthly, etc.—as often as you think is needed to best implement your plan. 

Remember to cut yourself some slack and be flexible as well as adaptable. You may need to make adjustments along the way. What has made me an effective teacher and leader is not that I don’t have problems; it’s my ability to identify the problems, take feedback, and put something in place to address the challenges. I only wish I had been more aware of the resources I had at my fingertips. There were countless times that I created documents and resources that were already available in the back of the teacher’s manual.

Enjoying learning from your mistakes!

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This post originally appeared on the 180 Educator Community blog on August 21, 2018. Find more HMH tools and resources to help you plan for back-to-school season.