Breaking the Bad News: How to Tell Your Student He Didn’t Pass

Monday, 12 September 2011

Teaching can be a real double edge sword. On one hand you get the excitement of showing your students the coolest things about paddling but on the other hand if you are teaching a certification course you sometimes have to face the fact that not all your students will pass.

I know there are readers out there who argue that organized certification programs might not the best environment to learn under and feel that that long-term peer-to-peer teaching and mentoring are better models for learning. While there are good arguments that different types of learning work for different people, lets set that conversation aside for another day as I want to focus on the thousands of certification courses run over the season.

One of the good things about organized certification courses offered by groups like the American Canoe Association, Paddle Canada or the British Canoe Union is that they offer a clear syllabus with learning outcomes at each level. The benefit is that it provides a clear benchmark for the student to see how their their personal skills line up with the overall program. It also provides clear stepping stones of success as they work their way up the certification ladder.

It’s human nature that every paddling instructor wants their students to succeed but sometimes you do all you can and still the the student still comes up short. For an instructor, telling somebody that they didn’t meet the requirements of the certification level can be one of the hardest things. Over the years I have seen fellow instructors break down in tears after giving the news and I once heard of a coach in the US who gave up teaching instructor courses for several years after one particularly upsetting encounter.

Below are a couple of tips and random thoughts to help soften the blow of giving the bad news to your students:

Think of Possible Options
What options do you have to work with? Some programs the only option is to pass or fail the student while others provide the option of a conditional pass for some levels. Conditional passes can be a great option as they allow the student to walk away and work on the one or two skills then come back for testing at a later date. They work great for students who are so close to success but not quite there. Conditional passes do require extra responsibilities on your part as well as a commitment to work with the student down the road long after the course is completed.

Other possible options could be to go and take some specific coaching lessons? Do you know any instructors in the students neighbourhood you could send them to for extra training then another assessment later in the season?

Why did they originally sign-up?
I like to find out at the start of the course the students goals and objectives for signing up and make a mental note of it. Often students are just there to learn and have no interest in the certification aspect of the course. If they don’t care then that might change how you approach the overall conversation.

Prepare Your Student Early
If you have a feeling that your student isn’t going to meet the certification requirements it’s in your best interest to plant the seed with them that you are concerned. You owe it to them to be honest and it would be really unfair if they walked into a certification debrief thinking they were passing when they weren’t.

Document Everything
If a student is not going to pass, make sure you document specific instances in the course or specific skills that lead to the decision and be prepared to show them to the student. Having clear documentation will give you a stronger foundation to stand on for students who try to argue or try convince you to change your mind. The reality is that you should be documenting the skills learned and students progression but it’s important that you pay close attention to struggling students.

You Need to Have a Tangible Reason
It’s critical that you have a tangible reason why the student can’t complete the course. An example of a tangible reason is the he can’t roll his kayak when it’s a required skill to pass. An example of a poor reason is that you have a “feeling” that the student is unsafe on the water. You need provide clear an irrefutable evidence and examples.

It’s Not Over for Paddling
As much as they are disappointed, remind them that not getting the certification card isn’t the end of the world as they still learned a pile of stuff throughout the course and they still have the skills to enjoy a day out on the water and that’s way more important then a card that eventually ends in their dresser drawer. They can always come back and either take the course again. Talk to your boss and find out if there would be discounted charge for them to come back at a later date to challenge the test again.

Be Transparent and Develop and Assessment Sheet
Make sure your assessment process is transparent and fair as possible. Develop an assessment sheet to make your notes on and give a photocopy to the students when they leave. The American Canoe Association has an excellent example of an assessment sheet that you can use. If you don’t teach the ACA program, you could develop a similar one for your self.

Work with the student to develop a plan of action for success in the future
If you tell your student, “Sorry you failed. See yeah.” there is a 100% chance they are going to quit paddling and take up golf the next day. Instead, work with the student during the course debrief to develop an action plan so they know the next steps and what they need to work on for success next time.

I hope that this helps with your future courses. If you have ideas I missed, add them to the comments section below. Special thanks to @bryanhansel, @elements_eu_ltd and @KayakToTheSea for their great suggestions for this article.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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