'Exam results belong to students, not teachers'

There's no point stressing about students' exam grades, says Tom Starkey – all you can do is try your hardest

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Thursday, of course, was GCSE results day. This is now a big deal in FE, due to English and maths retakes, and some colleges having on-site GCSE-age cohorts.

I hope, as I do every year, that all our students got what they deserve. A few years ago, I used to spend the build-up to results day tearing my hair out waiting for the results. Now, I’m a little more philosophical about the whole shebang. For some reason, the successes or failures of those that I teach don’t touch me as closely as they used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll feel for them if they tried and failed, or be happy for them if they tried and succeeded. But knowing that I did everything that I could to teach them in the best way that I could give the circumstances is pretty much enough for me these days. And to be fair, the day isn’t really about me (no matter what your exam success accountability set-up is like). It really has been up to them.

'I took all on my own shoulders'

It’s the realisation that I’ve upheld my end of the bargain that gives me a little peace these days. Previously, I would crucify myself if a student dropped a grade or I couldn’t get through to one of them so they didn’t access the learning that was on offer, meaning they never achieved their real potential. I took it all on my own shoulders and it was HEAVY.

Now I understand a little better that teaching and learning is a partnership and if both partners put the work in, then usually the job can get done to a standard where everyone’s happy. But when only one person in the team is putting the work in, well…you get half a job. I’ve put the work in and in most cases so have the students – the rest is up to the great gods of examination marking and what happened on the day.

'You can't force people to learn'

Because here’s something that I’ve learned and that has become more and more prevalent in my thinking as my career’s gone on: you can’t FORCE people to learn. You can’t take a handful of delicious learning and shove it down someone’s throat if they don’t want to eat it. I can come up with ways to make it all the more palatable, given individual tastes, but, at the end of the day, I’m not going to force some poor bugger’s jaw open.

Unfortunately, there’s still pressure to do this from people who don’t really understand how people work. They often fall back to shouting about "engagement" or "ownership" or whatever magic word they wrongly believe will open the cave so we can start shovelling the knowledge in and get the grades out. But all that’s just fairy stories. I work with people. And people are intensely complex - there is no secret password.

So I just do the job. No hair-pulling, no crucifixion. I’ve tried my hardest, and that’s enough. The results will be what they will be. There will be some cheers and some tears, as there always is.

But they’re not about me. They’re not my results.

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England

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