Failure is an option - and that's OK

If your adult learners stumble, these tips will give them the confidence to try again
13th February 2015, 12:00am


Failure is an option - and that's OK

Failure is tough for everyone but adult learners can feel it more acutely than most. And that can make teaching them extremely challenging.

For adults, the decision to return to the classroom can be a momentous one. Many students enrol on my English course with low self-esteem, having taken years to develop the courage to sign up. This raises the stakes.

Some have decades of unemployment or unsatisfying jobs behind them. As a result, they see my classroom as a last chance saloon. I teach level 1 English functional skills and the qualification could be a ticket to their first paid job, better work or the coveted GCSE and higher education. The stakes are therefore raised even higher.

So what happens when adult students fail? I chose this sector because I wanted to help people make the most of their second chance. But what if they are unsuccessful once again?

You are likely to be able to point to extenuating circumstances, of course. Exams don't suit everybody and even the most able can suffer a crisis of confidence in high-pressure situations. Absenteeism is often unavoidable owing to job interviews or childcare, and this can lead to poor results.

But as comforting as these sentiments may be, they are not productive. So how can you support your students when - despite all the hard work, encouragement and positive thinking - they don't pass?

Focus on the distance travelled

I've taught students who have failed the exam but have learned to write a well-structured email, punctuate correctly, speak with confidence and become regular visitors to the library. These are life-enhancing skills. Your students may not have passed, but remind them what they have learned along the way.

Consider alternatives

If a student loves writing but falls apart in exams, doing resit after resit is only going to cause anxiety and could turn them off learning altogether. Taking a non-accredited creative writing course instead could help them to build confidence. Speak to students about their options - there are usually alternatives to exams that could still lead to qualifications.

Have a break

When someone has taken the decision to return to the classroom after many years, they often feel they have to work quickly to make up for lost time. Many adult learners come to me with a five-year plan that starts at level 1 and ends with university. The pressure to accomplish enormous amounts in a short time is immense. If they stumble somewhere along the line, point out that a break is sometimes needed and that there is no hurry. Expectations have to be realistic, especially when students are juggling jobs and family commitments. It's not dropping out but dipping out. They can always dip back in.

Embrace fear

Make it clear that, whatever the outcome, your students have at least tried and have benefited as a result. Banishing fear of failure and focusing instead on the courage to try is a crucial life lesson. And the more you fail, the less you fear trying to succeed.

Learn from your mistakes

If you've failed at something once, doing the same thing in the same way is unlikely to lead to success. Instead, tell your adult students to learn lessons from what didn't work and find new ways to reach their goals.

We all fail

I failed my driving test three times, I have no artistic ability and I'm scared of computers. Not only do I tell my students this but I also draw on their skills to help me in the classroom. Students who are great with ICT assist me with technology glitches, artists showcase their talents when a drawing is needed and multilingual students translate the work. I point out my deficiencies in these areas all the time. It's a fact of life that we're all going to fail at something, and acknowledging this can cast failure in a new light.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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