Failure is your friend

21st September 2012 at 01:00

I have always been partial to a mentor; a wise soul from whom knowledge is acquired and guidance is sought. Part of our job as teachers is to mentor our learners, through the relationships we develop in class and in a clearly defined tutorial setting.

I'm fine with that. What's new for me is when a colleague asks for my direction. I haven't got enough years in the profession under my belt to offer adequate teaching advice. However, there is an area in which I have established some considerable expertise: failure.

In my previous career as an actor, rejection was a given. As a screenwriter I also encountered criticism. A Guardian review suggesting that my dialogue had been "copied from the wall of a public toilet" was a memorable appraisal.

That said, I was reasonably successful in both those careers. What I thank them for is a healthy disregard of any notion that one should hold back on boldness in case things don't go to plan.

As a functional skills English teacher desperate to engage students with language, my experimental approach was notorious. I had been told it would be unwise to take potentially challenging students off campus. But if the safe route of classroom teaching wasn't getting results, surely a different approach should be explored?

So, after completing a national forest's worth of paperwork, I took a large group of level 1 carpenters on a trip to a museum, famous for being the "most haunted place in Britain". For some it was their first time at such a place of cultural interest, evidenced by their overzealous attempts to engage with exhibits. Although the subject of the trip did not explicitly relate to the curriculum, the experience motivated the group significantly and prompted all manner of writing projects, discussions and debates in the weeks that followed.

But not all new ideas pan out as planned. In an attempt to investigate English words based in Latin roots and so teach a prefixsuffix session, I themed a class on the film Gladiator. Suffice to say, once I had equipped 20 builders with plastic swords they did indeed "unleash hell".

Which brings me to my second area of expertise: apologising. In order to employ audacity in teaching and an indifference to ill-conceived college policy without getting the sack, it is essential to be good at saying sorry.

I had a group of students several years ago who I considered to be a joy to teach but were extremely difficult in other sessions. I put this down to our early bonding: I had repeatedly marched them round the campus to find a better classroom than the 1970s cell in which we had originally been imprisoned. I was breaking the rules, but as anyone who has spent time with a risk assessment knows, you work out the worst-case scenario and track backwards. I was happy to take the deserved telling off and apologise; I was not happy to offer a group of learners less than they deserved.

In the chaos of the start of a new academic year, it's easy to forget to be bold and to take risks when planning sessions. But now is exactly when it is most important to engage learners and get them on side. You, too, may have to call for security when a full-scale Roman battle ensues, but it's better than churning out the same tired shtick.

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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