If At First You Don’t Succeed…What Did You Learn?

Most people in the education community know me as the principal of Fiske Elementary School, and many years back, as an elementary school teacher.  My career in education has spanned almost 20 years, which is short compared to some, and long compared to others just entering the field.  It also has moved by swiftly, and it feels as though it was just yesterday that I entered my first classroom and began working with students, enjoying everything about helping them and giving back to parents who entrusted me with their children.  Oddly enough, although I love my work and can’t imagine myself not working in education, I started off with another career path.  It wasn’t until I was faced with failure that I learned important lessons that I carried with me into my current career.


I don’t tell the students I interact with that I failed my first attempt at college.  My dream of entering the restaurant business took a quick turn for the worse and before I knew it, I was finished.  At this point in my life and career, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell them, however, I don’t necessarily put it right out there either.

I was not ready for college when I started the first time, despite being older than many other freshman.  And despite my being raised to be pretty self-sufficient, I quickly found myself not being able to manage the expectations of college life and thus, experiencing failure.

While it did not feel great to fail at the time, later on I used those life lessons to have a better experience.  I decided to go back to college when I felt I was ready and I became a serious student.  I suddenly loved being in college  again and realized that I had learned a few very important lessons:

  1. It is ok to fail at things.  You can’t be great at everything, and sometimes, it is about the timing.

  2. You should do what you really love, because in the end,  happiness is derived from that work.

  3. Hard work and perseverance pay off.  It wasn’t until I had my second chance in college that I realized my extra effort would really pay off and that I could do well with my studies.

I didn’t have anyone that came behind me and “scooped” me up after my failed attempt at going to school.  In the end, I am glad things turned out that way.  I learned about myself, what my values were, what I loved, and what I was willing to do to be successful.

When I am in classrooms and watching students work, I wonder if we let them “struggle” enough, in the good kind of way.  Do we encourage them to work through challenging math problems, sticking with them until they can find a solution that is correct, or do we just jump in and try to help them?  Do we let students banter about characters in stories, letting them make hypotheses about why events happened and why characters behaved the way that they did, or do we jump in with our own thoughts and ideas to move the conversation along so that we can get to the next lesson?


Students and all learners should have a chance to learn and grow, and those chance opportunities can also include failure, struggle, and challenge.  The key, in the school setting, is for supportive adults to tell students, “I believe in you, you can do this, I won’t give up on you.” We need to build perseverance and teach students that they may not be successful the first time around, but that effort and not giving up will most always help.  These lessons, when taught to students, will help them learn as adults that if they fail at something, they can persevere and grow, even when it doesn’t feel like they will.  They may also be able to overcome obstacles in their way and get to a very different place from where they intended to go.   Every learning opportunity provides each of us a chance to grow, even when that opportunity does not work out the way we had planned.  After all, if at first you don’t succeed, what did you learn?


3 thoughts on “If At First You Don’t Succeed…What Did You Learn?

  1. pauloneill1972 August 5, 2016 / 4:25 AM

    Great read! As advertised…Thanks for sharing your personal story to make an excellent point.

    • Thomas Martellone August 5, 2016 / 10:28 PM

      Thanks Paul, I appreciate the positive feedback! I see you do a lot of blog writing. Is yours at a specific URL? Where do you post?

      • pauloneill1972 September 4, 2016 / 5:21 AM

        You are welcome! I have posts scattered all over the land. The largest portion of my collection is on LinkedIn. Sorry for the delay! I didnt get any notification when you responded.

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