We need to talk about failure

This is the time of the year when I have to contact parents to inform  that their kids have failed their final exams. Breaking bad news — no matter if it it doesn’t come as a surprise, is just as hard for parents as it is for us teachers. That’s why  we need to work through our own feelings before contacting our students’ parents, especially if it hits close to home, as it is my case. Been there, done that both as a parent and as a student.

With such an abundance of factors influencing our ability to pick up a new language, how can we be confident that our students will accomplish the task of speaking fairly accurately and understanding grammar paradigms within the course of a semester, a year, or even a whole life? Some students will succeed while others will fail once, twice, or over and over again and make us wonder what we are missing.

Some say that failure is the road to success; however, it is not about failing: it is about taking a detour when everybody else in the class is going straight ahead; it’s about letting go. Easier said than done, I might say.

First of all, as much as we may doubt whether standardized (or not) written and oral tests are valid for assessing foreign language learning,  we must admit that they will be around for a while. Our oral tests, for example, aren’t the type of tests students can easily cram for because they must showcase what they have learned during an entire semester rather than what they managed to grasp in one night. Still, a lot of students at our private language institute do it, and what’s even worse, they have their parents’ full support because studying for their school tests is far more important. Besides that, they believe cramming alone leads to learning a foreign language.

It doesn’t happen without a reason:  According to parents’ logic, it is obvious that their kids should be rewarded for studying so hard. That said, how can students with this mindset move forward?

Another scenario we teachers often encounter is that of well-behaved students who are clearly committed to their learning, and yet, cannot string two words together in a sentence. How can they cope with the growing number of challenges as they move up? If they manage not to fail their exams, they simply go with the flow, but we teachers can tell they are struggling. They are the ones who don’t participate as much because they don’t know how to say things; they are the ones who don’t do the homework because they didn’t understand a thing. They are the ones who are in the remedial classes trying to catch up with things they are not ready for yet. That said, how can these students accomplish what other kids do in one semester when what they actually need is more time?

The fact that students are placed in classes organized into lower and higher levels with fancy names  makes things look worse than they really are. The fact that the parents paid a full semester’s tuition — only to find out their kids will be held back, makes things even worse. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I must deal with these scenarios almost every semester.

Fortunately, my  experience tells me that there is life after failure and I take some comfort in knowing that. Having experienced failure myself, I can talk my students and their parents through a wider range of options and strategies for better learning. The path to English proficiency is a very individual one and that it may take some people longer to walk it. Actually, it never ends.

Regardless of the scenario, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Always. Children repeat the semester and learn better. Teenagers become more mature and learn from their experiences. I usually tell my students’ parents that they may be facing difficulties today but next semester may be a completely different story. Language learning is a very complex task and it requires a different set of skills that may take longer for some students to master. By no means does longer mean never as long as we are patient and perseverant. We can and should try again.

As teachers,  we know that anxiety is a language learner’s worst enemy. Anxiety is also parents’ worst enemy. That’s why we should challenge some beliefs in order to help parents overcome anxiety to be able to cope with failure. Sometimes it isn’t about their kids at all: It’s all about them. Perhaps they would like their kids to be the good language learners they never managed to be themselves. So, here’s a great opportunity to debunk another myth and encourage these parents to try again: It’s never too late to learn.


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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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