Thursday, 16 August 2012

Coping with failure

The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.

A Level Results Day can be fraught with emotion.  I still develop nerves the night before and convince myself that this will be the year of spectacular failure! During twenty plus years of teaching it is inevitable that your students will sometimes get disappointing or even devastating results, but generally the grades reflect what you expected they would achieve - although not always what they hoped they would get.
This year my nerves were exacerbated by hearing on the radio that the exam boards had been instructed to mark the papers more rigorously. Given the state I get into, this translated at some level in the less rational part of my being as, "They will all have failed". I was well aware that this was entirely unlikely! A quick check of the results at 8am this morning was reassuring. My wonderful Lit group had all done really well and the vast majority had got the grades they needed and wanted. Some of them obviously share my angst ridden approach though as a very able student told me she had been shaking with nerves and anticipating a U grade. She got an A*.
Now that I also have responsibility for pastoral and discipline, I get to see many students who really have missed getting the grades they wanted or needed. I always feel for these students (even when they haven't worked very hard) because it is very difficult to cope with failure and disappointment, especially when you are young and so many of your friends are celebrating or thrilled about  going off to university and you feel you have nothing. Failure is difficult to cope with and can provoke emotions such as shame, anger, fear, hopelessness, guilt.
I once read that failure is simply an event and not a person, it is vital to take this approach when dealing with students who have got disappointing grades because they can feel that they are summed up by their results. They may feel what they are, or what their future will be, is defined  solely by those grades. On Facebook tonight I read many messages from proud parents whose children have done well. Spare a thought for those students who will go home without good news and who will feel left out of the general celebrations.  I do find it hard to leave the memory of them behind.


  1. ‘Two households both alike in dignity...’ – well not quite, but two households that are within my orbit, because of consanguine ties and familial connections represent the extremes of ‘A level’ result day. My great niece (see my Facebook page) has got the grades she wanted and although it was originally hoped she would take up the place offered at London, she has decided, for reasons of economy, to take a place offered in Manchester. She is of white working class stock and on more than one occasion the subject of a child protection investigation; she has had to make her own way in the world since the age of 15 when she left her father’s house. She was voted student of the year at her local sixth form college and fully realised the hopes placed in her by her teachers and family. I am immensely proud of her (even tho’ until a few months ago I’d only met her once, when she was a toddler – then in May of this year, she came to stay with my partner and I, as she had to take an exam at her chosen university in London: we bonded instantly). I think she has the makings of a truly remarkable individual.

    A hundred or so miles up the A1, from my great niece’s home in West Yorkshire, there lies a plump little commuter village, nestled on the border of North Yorkshire and Co Durham. On a leafy cul-de-sac, replete with des res, five bedroomed, three space garaged, detached houses is the home of my partner’s nephew. His father (my partner’s brother) is something big in a recently nationalised bank; his wife a manager of a HR consultancy. Their three children have been schooled at a private Roman Catholic school and much of the family’s money has been spent on giving the children the best education available in the area. The eldest son’s A Level results arrived on Thursday and they were not very good. He was morose and his parents were very disappointed.

    I met the boy for the first time earlier this year – despite the fact S*** and I have been together for almost a decade, our relationship has been hidden from his nephews and niece – their parents told my partner that he should not sign birthday and Christmas cards ‘Love from: S*** & Peter’ as the children would ask awkward questions! Anyway, we did meet earlier this year, a family birthday. He is nice, friendly, affable young man. But he’s no academic. I feel very sorry for him because he is very upset; he feels he has wasted the considerable investment that has been made in his education. I suggested his grandmother tell him that his own father didn’t even finish his A levels, but left school when he was 17.

    As someone who didn’t do his first degree until he was 28 and then went on to do two master’s degrees and is completing a PhD at present (the latter two at a Russell Group University), I think great care is needed NOT to see academic failure or lack of interest in one’s teens as a life time failure. My partner’s nephew is perhaps just not cut out for exams and jumping through hoops. I think he would be much happier doing an apprenticeship. Whatever, it is not the end of the road and he is certainly not a failure, no matter what the ego-centric world of the adolescent is telling him now.

    Yet I think the contrasting tale of my grt niece and my partner’s nephew tell us that money, position, education and family stability are no guarantees of academic success. But neither is the lack of same, an assurance of failure – as my grt niece (and my own experience) amply testifies. I just hope my partner’s nephew can learn from the experience and not take it to heart – academic success is but part of life and we can’t all be successes at every point.

  2. Yes, we do place too high an emphasis on academic success as the be all and end all. Also some students just shouldn't have gone down an academic route in the first place and are more suited to something vocational. That's not failure! A lot of students and parents do see it as failure or as shameful though.