Facing down those 'failure blues'

2011-01-19 00:00

WHAT do Eric Ellerine, Steven Spielberg, the late Tony Factor, Albert Einstein and Sir Winston Churchill have in common? If you say they are all successful, well-known people, you are only half right. They also all dropped out of high school and never got a school-leaving qualification.

This may seem like cold comfort to pupils who failed matric, or are now faced with supplementary National Senior Certificate exams in February; but what many commentators have said, The Witness’s Raymond Walker included (The Witness, November 26) is true. Matric results are not a reliable indicator of success in life, or the lack of it (see box), and failing matric is not the end of the world.

However, picking yourself up after the disappointment of not passing can be a huge challenge. So can getting back to studying for sups (supplementary exams) when you thought school was all behind you. It can be equally difficult for the parents of youngsters in this situation to know how to help and advise their children. The Witness consulted two local experts to offer some advice for young people who failed and/or are preparing to write supplementary exams, and their parents.

Beryl Lourens, director of the Centre for Life-long Learning in Hilton said: “It is important not to equate failing exams with being a failure as a person, or failing at life. It only means that you have failed at doing something. It means that, for whatever reason, you didn’t produce what the examiners were looking for in an exam.

“You still have your whole life ahead of you and this is not a final event that will keep you from achieving your dreams. In fact, failure can become a springboard to excellence and success. Most really successful people have failed numerous times. The key is to use it as a learning and growth experience. Don’t personalise your failure and allow it to defeat you. Use it as a chance to move on and make the changes you need to make to achieve your goals.”

Lourens encouraged young people to rewrite if possible as “matric is important as a first step into many jobs and careers. Depending on your results, your resources and your circumstances, either go back to school, attend an FET college or take night classes.”

Local psychologist Clive Willows said pupils who were disappointed by their matric results could experience a crisis of self-confidence. In this case, parents can play an important role. “They require positive encouragement focused on letting them know you believe in them and that they do have the capacity to respond to challenges. Tell them you believe in their ability to deal with life and to respond actively to setbacks like this rather than to give in or try to shift the blame elsewhere.”

He said that developmentally, teenagers generally prefer short-term rewards for their efforts, and seek gratification as soon as possible. “The act of studying is, for most, an unpleasant task which has only a long-term benefit that may appear too distant, and therefore fails to generate any enthusiasm. There are few pupils who naturally enjoy studying. A demotivating factor may be that for the past 12 years they believed that they were actually performing for the benefit of, or under instruction from, someone else, like parents or teachers.

“It is therefore important for teenagers to ‘own’ their matric, and know that they want to achieve it for their personal benefit, as opposed to pleasing parents or teachers or aiming for awards. In developing their own purposeful motivation, they have to decide how badly they want it, which usually means considering what they may have to sacrifice to achieve their goals.

“Personal motivation is essential for those writing supplementary exams as not only do they have to accept their initial disappointment, but they also need to summon their energy and commit to redoing what they thought had already been accomplished. In addition, they have to study again when there are many, tempting, distractions as their peers continue to relax.”

Willows said it is important to realise that waiting for motivation to kick in suddenly to make studying a pleasure is “probably futile. “It is more helpful to realise that effort usually comes before motivation. Especially in the early stages of preparation, what is required is a decision to start studying, to ‘just do it’, despite the lack of motivation. Usually, and hopefully, the motivation will grow as they make some progress.”

How to use failures to make changes for success

• REFLECT on why you didn’t succeed as you need to know the reasons so you can learn from them and address them. For example: which content didn’t you know? What skills couldn’t you apply? What preparation did you do? What study techniques did you use? Once you have identified this, move on. Don’t get stuck in this phase.

• Try to DISCOVER how you learn best as an individual i.e. your best learning-style strengths. Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, or do you learn best in a tactile-kinesthetic way, i.e. through experience? Learn to use study strategies that match your style of learning.

• Use what you have discovered about yourself as a pupil and why you didn’t succeed to make DECISIONS on changes you need to make in your attitude to your studies (some experts believe that attitude is everything); your planning (study timetables and the amount of time you will spend each week); what help you require in specific subjects or skills; and your study techniques. If you need to and can, use one or more of the programmes available, e.g. study skill or learning-style programmes, or subject tutoring. If you are depressed and finding it difficult to come to terms with your failure, see a counsellor or contact organisations like Childline or Lifeline for free counselling.

• Next you need to change these decisions into GOALS and commit yourself to them. Write them down because research shows that people who write down their goals and refer to them regularly are the ones who achieve them. Draw up a list of the goals that are going to get you your matric.

• Most important is ongoing DAILY DISCIPLINE. You can make all the decisions and list all the goals you want to, but if you don’t work towards them by consistently applying the habits and strategies that will get you to your goals, nothing will change. Success is not a destination, it is a process, and you don’t just get there. If you want success in the final exams then you need to go through the process. Your success will depend on your daily agendas, i.e. the discipline you apply throughout the preparation period in applying the decisions you have made and the goals you have set yourself. It is up to you. With the right attitude you can do it.

— Centre for Lifelong Learning.

Famous high school failures

NOBEL Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein scraped through his final year of high school. At nine his language skills were so poor that his parents though he was of below-average intelligence. Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything. He went on to invent the light bulb and is considered one of the most prolific inventors yet, with 1 093 United States patents to his name. Abraham Lincoln had only five years of formal schooling and British mathematician Isaac Newton did so poorly at junior school his teachers did not know what to do to help him improve. Winston Churchill dropped out of school in Grade 6.

Michael Jordan was dropped from his high school basketball team because of “lack of skill” and Steven Spielberg dropped out of junior high school. Persuaded to come back, he was placed in a learning-disabled class. He lasted only a month and then dropped out of school forever. Actor Sylvester Stallone went to a school for troubled children, dropped out of university and became a “struggling actor” before finding fame.

Closer to home, one of South Africa’s greatest retailers of the seventies and eighties, the late Tony Factor, dropped out of high school and had to overcome dyslexia. Entertainer and actor Patrick Mynhardt got a second-class matric pass and had to repeat maths to gain entry to university. Mary Holroyd left school at 15 but went on to found the Weigh-Less slimming organisation. Eric Ellerine, founder of the multinational Ellerine group of companies, left school at 16. — artician.com

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