Celebrate success, not celebs

5th December 2008 at 00:00

Like many colleges, we celebrated our learners' achievements in good style - at what was billed in the local press as the college "Oscars", where students who had won prizes were feted in a glitzy, glamorous ceremony.

I'm a great believer in rewarding learners' success. For lecturers especially, there's always the danger of honing in on lack - where the spelling's wonky, where the presentation falters - instead of taking just as much time to commend the good bits.

In theory, assessment is all about recording achievement but, in practice, teaching can be about ironing out problems and steering learners successfully towards completion. Working towards the rewards tests both learner and lecturer. The success, when it comes, is not like winning the lottery, a bolt from the blue. It's earned. It's worked for. It's well deserved.

That's why, when we get a chance to celebrate success, and to borrow some of the glitz from the champagne moment of a lottery win, we owe it to our learners to pull out all the stops and give them the real red-carpet treatment, treating them like the stars they are - which we did.

The same week we celebrated, however, a report by Action for Children Scotland revealed that 18 per cent of the 18 to 25-year-olds they polled felt dissatisfied with their lives when they compared them to the lives and achievements of celebrities. They saw their own futures as bleak.

Much has been written about the impact of the world of celebrity culture on our young people. It can be a positive influence: you can learn from vicarious experience, even suss out just how to act gracefully in awkward social situations. There was certainly a hint of Hollywood in my young friend's response when she didn't get the pantomime part for which she auditioned. She hugged the lucky Cinderella, and squealed: "I'm so pleased for you!". In reality, she probably felt like stamping her glass slipper on the stage and flouncing off.

Celebrities and their lives are as real as the people living next door to our young people. Whether we like it or not, they learn from them. So when something good happens, don't expect a muted response from the learner in your class. Expect the hand clapped to the face, the wide eyes and welling tears, and the emotional "omigod" moment that we've all learnt is the accepted response to everything from a text from the-lad-everyone-fancies-in-art to winning the X Factor.

It's sad, then, that some young people feel so overshadowed and demoralised when they compare their lives to the lives of the famous that they feel powerless. There are many factors at work here, of course but, as educators, we can do much to ensure that these young people know they have the power to shape their lives, to succeed and to feel that their success matters.

If the glitz of our college's "Oscar" ceremony helps bring it home to disenfranchised young people that achievement, recognition and power are not alien, that they don't belong only on a stage or in a glossy magazine which depicts other people's lives, but can be real and part of their own experience, it not only serves the purpose of rewarding our learners for their hard work, but allows them to act as real-life role models on a real-life stage.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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