‘Those who fail should not be teachers’: Pre-service Teachers’ Understandings of Failure and Teacher Identity Development

June 2021

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 47:3, 379-394

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors examined 45 Portuguese pre-service subject teachers’ understandings of what failure is and how it affects their teacher identity.
This study adds to the line of research addressing the relationship between personal experiences and teacher identity development during initial teacher education, and it significantly contributes to the body of knowledge by tapping into experiences of failure.
The research question guiding this study was: How do pre-service teachers make sense of failure with regards to their identity as teachers?


Research goal and data collection
The authors’ earlier work explored pre-service elementary school and pre-service mathematics teachers’ failure experiences in mathematics and in the Finnish teacher education context (Lutovac 2019, 2020).
In this study, they widened their scope, examining experiences of failure among 45 Portuguese pre-service subject teachers of History, Mathematics, Portuguese language, Biology and Geology.
They all were in the first semester of their first-year master’s degree programmes and had not yet undergone their teaching practicums.
Some pre-service teachers, however, did have some teaching experience, mostly related to working as student tutors in study centres.
Most of the participants are female between 21 and 25 years of age.
These pre-service teachers will be qualified to teach their respective subjects in lower- and upper secondary school.
As part of the wider project on narrated failure (Academy of Finland), data were collected in the final lesson of the course Curriculum and Assessment, a cross-curricular component of all Master’s degree in Teaching.
The course is compulsory for all future teachers and it lasts for one semester (45 hours in total).
The course focused on issues of curriculum design and curriculum theory, on the role of the teacher in curriculum development, on assessment theory, functions and methods as well as on the legal framework underpinning the work of teachers in regard to curriculum and assessment.
The course provided pre-service teachers with opportunities for reflection on various aspects of teacher’s work in order to build their professional knowledge and support their pedagogical choices as well as their professional development.
Pre-service teachers in question were also familiar with the concept of teacher identity and its relevance for their future work.
The situatedness of the data collection in this course also fulfilled the pedagogical purpose, which was to promote the pre-service teachers’ reflection upon personal experience to assist them in identity development as teachers.
Pre-service teachers were used to reflect on their experience as students and future teachers as one assignment of the course consists of the development of a portfolio.
The authors collected written narrative data, which was an additional task for them (not included in the production of their portfolio), asking pre-service teachers’ to provide a brief reflection upon the following questions:
(1) How do I, as a university student, understand (or experience) failure in my subject?
(2) As a future teacher, how do I understand my students’ failure in my subject and how does this affect my teacher identity?
(3) As a future teacher, how do I understand my own failure as a teacher and how does this affect my teacher identity? Most pre-service teachers addressed each question separately, however some provided one collective answer to the three questions.
The questions were purposively designed to require various perspective taking, for example, that of a pre-service teacher, that of a teacher and that of a student (see also Lee and Schallert 2016; Flores 2020).

Results and discussion
While various understandings of failure were identified, it was surprising that failure was not understood as something particularly negative.
Some categories actually revealed quite the opposite – that failure may be an important signal to teachers to address and change their ways of working.
Furthermore, this beneficial aspect of failure was also acknowledged when pre-service teachers wrote about failure being necessary for one’s development.
Overall, the writings about failure portray a picture of self-development, improvement, and teachers’ self-imposed accountability.
This suggests that these pre-service teachers hold a growth mindset, which is crucial for pre-service teachers’ resilience (Dweck 2006; Yeager and Dweck 2012).
The connection between understandings of failure and the development of teacher identity and resilience entails the ability not only to make sense of own experiences incorporating them in a developing repertoire of knowledge but also to mobilise them in the process of becoming a teacher by developing a set of professional values.
This is in line with earlier research which shows the impact of professional, individual and relational conditions on resilience and identity development (Pearce and Morrison 2011) and its multidimensional features, including the emotional (managing emotions, enjoying teaching, etc.), the profession-related (commitment to students, being reflective and flexible, etc.), the motivational (motivation and enthusiasm, being positive and optimistic, etc.) and the social (interactions with students and colleagues, interpersonal and communication skills, etc.) (Mansfield et al. 2012).
Building resilience in preservice teachers’ experience is, therefore, to be related, amongst other features, to opportunities for peer support; explicit teaching of particular skills and attitudes; and adoption of particular roles by pre-service teachers, mentors at school and university supervisors (Le Cornu 2009).
What could present itself as a concern, however, is the category ‘I should not allow myself to fail as a teacher’.
While it shows a strong commitment to the teaching profession and teacher’s accountability for learners’ failure, which was associated with growth mindset (Patterson, Kravchenko, Chen-Bouk and Kelley 2016), it could also signal that preservice teachers understand failure in terms of being a failure as a teacher.
Such beliefs of oneself and identifications with failure – allowing failure to define one’s identity (Lutovac 2019), paired with the references about quitting the profession in case of failure, could also signal that pre-service teachers hold a fixed mindset (e.g., ‘I am who I am and cannot do anything to improve’) which may in fact undermine their resilience.
Hence, too much of accountability for learners’ failure could be potentially problematic and detrimental to teacher resilience, however, this calls for further examination.
While the authors examined various subject teachers’ understandings of failure, they observed the universality in these understandings.
Their data showed that regardless of the subject discipline, how pre-service teachers understand failure and the meaning it gives to their teacher identity and their work as teachers appears to be similar.
Both, the five categories regarding understandings of failure from two different perspectives and four categories regarding understanding of the relation between learner and teacher failure were identified across all subject domains.
The accounts that pre-service teachers in question provided appeared not to be subject-specific but rather general and carrying a similar message across the subject disciplines.
It appears, therefore that different subject teachers may have similar understandings of failure, and that their sense-making process in terms of failure and teacher identity is very similar.
The authors’ findings on pre-service teachers’ understandings of the relation between learner and teacher failure as inextricable suggests that this relation may be one of the defining aspects in terms of their developing teacher identity.
Namely, this was considered in all pre-service teachers’ accounts.
When pre-service teachers reflected upon learner’s failure and the reasons for it, they also linked it to their own failure as teachers and how they could possibly prevent it or handle it.
For example, utterances such as ‘Student failure is my own failure’ or ‘Failure of my students shows that my work as a teacher was not done properly’ were particularly informative about their identity development.
It is through sense-making of the relations between learner and teacher failure that preservice teachers made sense of themselves as teachers and reached conclusions about the possible strategies needed to become the kinds of teachers they want to be in the future (see also, Lutovac 2020).
Understanding failure is thus not only a non-dismissible aspect in their future work as teachers, but an important source of identification regarding what kind of teacher one aspires to be, and moreover, who can or cannot be a teacher.
As one pre-service teacher wrote: ‘Those who fail should not be teachers’.
In all, the way pre-service teachers came to understand failure, is a vital part of their process of becoming a teacher and how they see themselves and how they plan to act as teachers in the future.
In terms of teacher identity and its development, the authors’ findings revealed important reflective foci that emerged from the writings on failure, such as issues of teacher commitment, dedication, care, decision making, teacher actions and self-development (Flores 2020).
This suggests that initiating reflection upon experiences of failure may offer a wide range of possibilities for pre-service teachers to tap into in order to assist them in developing as teachers.
These issues have also been highlighted as central for teachers to maintain their motivation over time as well as resilience and teacher retention (Flores 2018; Carrillo and Flores 2018).

The authors conclude that their findings, such as pre-service teachers’ positive outlook on failure, universality of understandings of failure across the subject disciplines and interaction between understandings of failure and teacher identity, all bring us closer to clearer understanding of failure as an experience and a construct from a subjective viewpoint, as well as how failure shapes future teachers (Lutovac 2019, 2020).
In addition, this study evidenced how application of reflection upon failure in teacher education also invites reflection upon other constructs relevant to teachers’ work, which further signals the importance of including reflection upon and discussions around failure in teacher education pedagogies.

Carrillo, C., and M. A. Flores. 2018. “Veteran Teachers’ Identity: What Does the Research Literature Tell Us?” Cambridge Journal of Education 48 (5): 639‒656.
Dweck, C. S. 2006. Mindset. New York, NY: Random House
Flores, M. A. 2018. “Teacher Resilience in Adverse Contexts: Issues of Professionalism and Professional Identity.” In Resilience in Education, edited by M. Wosnitza, F. Peixoto, S. Beltman, and C. Mansfield. New York, NY: Springer.
Flores, M. A. 2020. “Feeling Like a Student but Thinking Like a Teacher: A Study of the Development of Professional Identity in Initial teacher education.” Journal of Education for Teaching 46 (2): 145–158.
Le Cornu, R. 2009. “Building Resilience in Pre-service Teachers.” Teaching and Teacher Education 25 (5): 717–723.
Lee, S. A., and D. L. Schallert. 2016. “Becoming a Teacher: Coordinating Past, Present, and Future Selves with Perspectival Understandings about Teaching.” Teaching and Teacher Education 56: 72–83.
Lutovac, S. 2019. “Pre-service mathematics teachers’ narrated failure: stories of resilience.” International Journal of Educational Research 98: 237‒244.
Lutovac, S. 2020. “How Failure Shapes Teacher Identities: Pre-service Elementary School and Mathematics Teachers’ Narrated Possible Selves.” Teaching and Teacher education 94: 103120.
Mansfield, C. F., S. Beltman, A. Price, and A. McConney. 2012. ““Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff:” Understanding Teacher Resilience at the Chalkface.” Teaching and Teacher Education 28 (3): 357–367.
Patterson, M. M., N. Kravchenko, L. Chen-Bouck, and J. A. Kelley. 2016. “General and Domain-specific Beliefs about Intelligence, Ability, and Effort among Preservice and Practicing Teachers.” Teaching and Teacher Education 59: 180–190.
Pearce, J., and C. Morrison. 2011. “Teacher Identity and Early Career Resilience: Exploring the Links.” Australian Journal of Teacher Education 36 (1): 48–59.
Yeager, D. S., and C. S. Dweck. 2012. “Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed.” Educational Psychologist 47 (4): 302–314. 

Updated: Feb. 13, 2022