Terminator A2: Judgement Day

Results day is the great leveller; it is the Armageddon of the A-level laboratory, the day when, after two years of kids saying Ah I ain’t bovvered to come in, suddenly they are bovvered and oh my days I can’t sleep and oh look someone pinged me, bred, whoa is that top from River Island? For a teacher, it’s an alchemy of anticipation and repulsion because, short of a TARDIS and a box of dynamite, there’s no way to change the outcome. Like an arrow, the future is in the air; now all we can do is see where it lands.

For control freaks and the anxious, teaching A levels is a peculiar project of learned helplessness. We possess, without question, the capacity to get students through academic GCSEs if they are willing to observe every step of the tightrope you suggest. By A level, your ability to direct and spoon feed starts to dissolve, as it should. If your subject has any form of meaningful content, it shouldn’t be possible to lead the students by the nose into success. For possibly the first time in their academic careers (let’s call it a career) students cannot river dance over the C boundary by merely attending to your lessons. They actually have to work beyond the classroom. This is, of course, terrifying and unsatisfactory. It is the harbinger, the very Elijah to your emergent ulcer.

Some students emerge into A-levels as if they had been waiting for them all their lives, chrysalises of maturity and intellectual rigour and dexterity; others have to be dragged into the Golden Dawn of advanced grades like a cartoon cat. Most begin amenably enough, cowed and unsure of the redrawn boundaries; homework, reading and notes are returned with as much punctuality as they possessed in Key Stage 4. But gradually new habits develop. Freedom is both a stimulant and an intoxicant; some students soar outside the aviary, others blunder into branches and end up experts in nothing more than morning television and composing imaginative excuses for attendance, and then gradually none at all.

And this is how the cocktail of anxiety and optimism is mixed and shaken: so much of their success is now down solely to them, to their character, to their understanding that no one will tie a bib on them and wipe the apple puree from their chins anymore; they have to learn the stuff, finally. And in order to do that they have to display perspicacity, not in one great coital gasp at the end (the preferred weapon of self-destruction), but with the dull, ungroovy persistence of habit, developed over months and months- millennia in student years.

As their mentors, we can see where the plates will fall long before they do. By the end of the first term of AS, you could probably plan a probability graph of how long it will take them to achieve escape velocity, or be dragged into the gravity of a dying star. This is where the conversations come from; the ones that begin, “If you carry on the way you’re going…” And because teenagers are immortal, invulnerable, and free from gravity and time, they nod and say “we understand,” when what they mean is: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Is it lunch time?”

And of course we do understand. And – because if you’re any kind of teacher you’ll give a damn how they do – sometimes, terrifyingly, we understand more even than they do. Teenagers are possessed of two characteristics that harrow and grieve any adult that cares about them: the intuitive certainty of their own autonom and the inability to grasp the perils inherent in that liberty. These qualities find their feet in the two ages they straddle; emergent adulthood and receding childhood. And we stand, as ever, as guardians and gate keepers against disaster.

But some lessons cannot be taught by instruction; they require demonstration and empirical verification; children have to make mistakes in order to become adults. Much as we might wish they wouldn’t make them in our classes, all we can do is point out clear paths and get ready with the stretchers when they unicycle off cliff edges.

And sometimes they manage just fine. Sometimes they even amaze us. That’s the burden – and the benediction – of the best job in the world.

Good luck getting some sleep the night before.


Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him. His latest new book Teacher, is out this month, published by Continuum/ Bloomsbury.

TES will be hosting a stress clinic on Tuesday 14 August between 16.00 and 17.30. Advice and support will be provided by Tom and by the Teacher Support Network. You can leave your questions for the panel here.