What is failure anyway?

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

A definition from Cambridge dictionary says:

Failure (noun) – the ​fact of someone or something not ​succeeding.

The meeting was a complete/total failure.

I’m a bit of a failure at making (= I cannot make) cakes.

I feel such a failure (= so unsuccessful).

The dictionary does not help me much, though. Trying to find the definition that would be right for me was a complete failure. In my understanding, not meeting a goal does not mean being unsuccessful, it is not the end of the world. It just means that we were not ready at that particular moment, or that it was not the right time for us, at least not yet! When we feel a failure, all we want to do is give up. I believe that, on the contrary, that’s exactly when we need to try one more time, and then maybe once again… and again, if necessary.

As a teacher, I tend not to use this word and I will tell you why. Foreign language teaching in my country is absolutely exam-oriented. Students learn one or two foreign languages at school, but they also attend courses at private language schools to actually “learn a language”. “Learn a language” in this case always means “pass an exam in order to get a certificate”. Certificates are everything, they last forever if you want to work as a public servant. As a result, students start learning English at a very young age (usually 5 years old) and keep going until they get the desired certificate. EFL exam industry thrives in Greece and children take C2 CEFR level exams at 14.

And yet they “fail”. They fail because the language level  is way too demanding, because they have loads of homework assigned either by school or by private tutoring centres, or maybe because they have taken up more extracurricular activities than ever. They fail because they are too young to understand texts in C2 level – they do not even read newspapers or watch the news in their own language. They fail because they are taught to prepare by studying three test books and learning huge lists of vocabulary by heart. In the end, most of these students do not pass the exam…

But does this really mean failure? And if so, failure for whom? Failure for the student who has not passed the exam? Failure for the teacher? Why have we failed?

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In my opinion, we have missed our goal. Our goal is to make students use the language, develop their basic interpersonal communication skills as well as their cognitive academic language proficiency. In the real world, having a certificate means nothing if you cannot use what you have learned. Of course, certificates are a mere necessity in order to study, get a job, have an officially documented proof to indicate your knowledge. But what happens, for example, if you passed your language exam at 14 and have not used the language ever since? I have seen so many people not being able to communicate in English after years of learning the language. It is certainly sad, but it is not failure. You are never a failure if you are willing to improve yourself.

So, what can we do in order to meet our goals? As teachers, we should:

  • Promote communication among our students and with peers from other countries. Let them realise that we have more similarities than differences. Let them learn how to tolerate people and how to handle situations with different mentalities and cultures. Show them the power of language.
  • Make them use the language everywhere they can. Watch movies and videos, listen to songs, read books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. Make them interested!
  • Create real life situations. Let them see why they need the language. Try role plays – take them out and have them pretend they are tourists and cannot speak their native language. Let them play!
  • Have them use the vocabulary they have learned by playing vocabulary games to revise it. Make it fun!
  • If they have to take an exam, make them familiar with the exam format, devote some time to making them work with certain strategies. Talk about the topics you find in the books. Organize debates, use group work, and let them take decisions and find solutions to problems.
  • Use technology. There is definitely some kind of an app to help you with your goal!

Whatever you do, remember this: not passing an exam does not make you less intelligent, as well as having students who did not make it in an exam does not mean that you are a bad teacher. “Failure” is just a word which is overrated. Keep moving!


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Theodora Papapanagiotou

Theodora Papapanagiotou is a teacher of EFL and DaF (German as a foreign language) in Greece since 1992. She has worked in various language schools in her hometown, Thessaloniki and with various levels and ages. In the past few years she has been working as a freelance teacher and taking parts in conventions, webinars and online courses, trying to become a better teacher.

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