Serve It Up!
Failing Forward–Plan to Succeed Through Reflecting on the Past

Last school year has come to an end, you are now deep into your Summer Break, and the last thing you want to do is go back in time. Moreover, you definitely don’t want to revisit the failures of the previous school as you’re relaxing by the pool or binge-watching your favorite TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Handmaids Tale, or Game of Thrones. But, I would like to challenge you to consider that reflecting on the failures of last school year can be the springboard to developing a plan to succeed in the upcoming school year.

In John C. Maxwell’s book Failing Forward, he shared the stories of great people and the many failures that they experienced on their road to success. The power in each story was that all of these great people used their failures to set the path for their overall success. He states that they did this by refusing to give up and reflecting on each failure as a means to cultivate a plan to get better. For example, Colonial Sanders experienced failure in convincing others that his chicken recipe was one that would have households licking their fingers and shouting, “This is good” more than 1,000 times before he met that one person that said this is worthy to be shared with the world. He utilized his failures to push him forward. 

The work that you do as an educator is challenging and while you may not have experienced what you consider failure, there are always things as educators that we feel like we can do better or improve. But what were those things? What are those things that you said you would do differently next year? It may be improving overall test scores or 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’s “Back in Time” now. 

Step 1: Reflect on your school/classroom. Think about your campus or classroom from the start of the day to the very end. Make two columns. On one side list all those 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.




Classroom Management

Lack of Engagement and Rich Classroom Discussion

Step 2: Determine the cause. In identifying the challenge, we often forget to determine the root cause of the problem. Without doing this, this could result in repeating the failures of the past.  As a leader in my school, I learned a strategy for reflecting on root causes. It is called fish-boning.  The head of the fish is where you place the challenge and on the scales of the fish you write down all the causes of the problem. (See Diagram) The last thing you will want to do is develop to a plan to address your challenge that does not resolve the root of the problem.

Fish Bone Reflection

Step 3: Brainstorm and research ideas to address the challenges. This part will require you to do some research. Consider that the challenge you would like to correct or improve is engagement. What will you need to do in order to address this challenge?

a.     Explore what’s available in the program/curriculum that you teach. Whether you teach READ 180, System 44, or IRead, embedded in each program there are instructional routines that are designed to ensure students are not only engaged in the program but are also actively participating. Within the implementation guides that you received during your initial training, there is a section that outlines the routines that are available to you and that you can use within your classroom. In addition, within the resources of the programs, there are instructional videos that model these routines being used with students in a classroom.

b.     Ask a Friend. The HMH Educator Community page is an excellent resource that you can use to connect with other educators to glean from their expertise. You can also post a question and get suggestions and ideas from others that are experiencing success in that area. In addition, you may also 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.

c.     Think Outside the Box. Tap into your creative side and try something you’ve never done before. If what you have been doing is not working, you need to try something different. What’s trending in the world today? Ask yourself, “What would Ron Clark do?”  Google 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 jumpstart the creative juices flowing.

Step 4: Develop a plan and work your plan. Now that you have explored what is available to you, it is time to develop your plan. Through your reflections and exploration, you have discovered ideas and suggestions that can be put in place to turn your failures or opportunities into success. Taking into consideration your teaching style, classroom structure, and your goals create your plan.

You will also need to establish a measurable goal. What does success look like and how will you know you have reached success? When I was being certified in shifting school cultures, I was taught a valuable lesson as a leader. “Inspect what you expect; if you don’t inspect what you expect then you are expecting failure.” Part of the successful implementation of your plan is ongoing reflections of what is working and what is not working. This can be done daily, weekly, monthly, etc.

Remember to cut yourself some slack and be flexible as well as adaptable. You may need to make adjustments along the way. What made me an effective teacher and leader is not that I didn’t have problems; it was my ability to identify the problems, take feedback and put something in place to address the challenges. I only wish I was more aware of the resources that I had available 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. J

Enjoying learning from your mistakes! Remember to share and comment a key tactic within your plan.



Albert Morton is a Project Manager with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is responsible for partnering with districts to facilitating the successful implementations of programs within their schools.  Prior to working as a professional learning consultant, he taught in Clayton County Public Schools in a suburb of Atlanta. It was there he was able to garner his professional and life experiences and serve in many capacities within his Middle School such as: Member of School Leadership Team, 6th Grade Language Arts Lead Teacher, Georgia Professional Standards Coach, District Read 180 Model Classroom, and Peer Coach for New Teachers. His entire teaching career has been dedicated to working with the most challenging students in the school and investing in them the tools and knowledge needed to be successful within and outside of the classroom. His philosophy is that effective classroom instruction must be a balanced merging of curriculum and life skills to properly prepare students for college and career readiness. With this philosophy, he has successfully implemented a number of Language Arts and Reading Programs and in his last year of teaching implemented Read 180, an intervention program for students reading below grade level.

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