No one likes failure but you have to face it

5th June 2009 at 01:00

Yes we can! Barack Obama's triumphant yell to Americans is a beacon of positivity. It also neatly describes the prevailing atmosphere in most colleges today.

We deal in success. We expect success. We celebrate success.

First come the young learners' awards. These are followed closely by Adult Learners' Week, with prizes all round for endeavour and achievement. Even the staff have their own awards ceremony.

All students, we insist, should be given the chance to succeed. Once education - successful education - was for the few rather than the many. Now we expect pass rates for every qualification to go up by a percentage point or two every year. When it hits 100, no doubt we'll be encouraged to go for 110!

But what happens when "Yes we can" becomes "No you can't"? Teachers rightly see their job as minimising failure. But isn't it also our job to help deal with failure when it cannot be avoided?

I was reminded of this recently when I walked into an admissions interview room. Right away I knew that something was up. Not only was the body language awful: the interviewee had tears in her eyes.

Across the desk, the interviewer was trying to make the best of it. As in most colleges, we don't just say "No" when we think a student isn't up to a course they want. The problem is that the alternative - often at a lower level - inevitably speaks of failure to the person on the receiving end.

It is not only in admissions that the F-word has to be faced. However hard we try to keep our students on courses, some always fall by the wayside.

A few just go. Interestingly, that doesn't always mean they really want to: it may simply be that they have a problem they are finding hard to solve. Your role - as teacher, tutor, surrogate parent - is to cajole them back. They won't call you: you have to call them.

But there are other students who won't be saved. These are the suicide candidates who mean it. Your emails go unanswered. Whenever you call, the phone is turned off. Finally, you reluctantly tick the "destination unknown" box on the early leaver form.

With others, it is entirely the reverse. Despite the negative feedback they get - failing all their assignments - they cling on with great tenacity. These are the hardest cases to deal with. Do you engage, support and assist? Or do you pull the plug because that's the fair and honest - albeit painful - thing to do?

There is a phrase sometimes used in colleges to cover this: "counselling them off the course". How this differs from "kicking the buggers out", I have never quite understood. Possibly it just makes the teacher feel better about what is happening. The soft exterior counsels, while the bastard within shows them the door.

So, while "No you can't" may not sound very nice, sometimes you can't avoid it.

I discovered this early on in my career in a way that still gives me nightmares. It revolved around an interview with an aspirant student. The young woman was from Hong Kong and had been studying English on the college's programme for English as a foreign language. She was convinced she was ready for A-levels.

The trouble was that I wasn't convinced. I suggested another course. No, it was only A-levels she wanted. Next came the tears; lots of tears. When she sank to the floor and threw her arms around my knees, I made a run for it.

By good fortune, in the corridor I bumped into a colleague who had taught her. She was also much more experienced than I was. Back in the interview room, I watched as she laid out, in a gentle but firm way, an alternative path for the now dry-eyed interviewee.

Teacher I might have been, but I learnt something that day.

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