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Hope springs eternal

"It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand," says Brian Stimpson, John Cleese's fastidious headmaster in the 1986 film Clockwise.

Exam season. Like passing a kidney stone, you desperately anticipate it at the same time as wanting it to be over. Except that you have 100 kidney stones and they're all shaped like Albania.

It's one thing they never warn you about when you're training to be a teacher: giving a monkey's. You'll care more than is reasonable about how your pupils fare.

Part of it is how their success reflects on you - and don't let anyone pretend to be so pious that they deny this. Unless you're heir to a fortune, as well as helping students you probably also teach to eat, pay bills and occasionally charge your smartphone. And recent changes mean that more and more teachers see their August bounty as a bottom line. Get the passes or kiss goodbye to dreams of shopping at Waitrose.

That's a given. But I've not met a teacher who isn't contorted with faith and despair as exam season approaches. And the feeling doesn't go away just because you have straight-A kids. Then you worry that they'll hit the bullseye perfectly (and it's far, far worse when they don't get the grade, because the gods of progression insist that it must be your fault).

If you teach low-ability kids, it's all far more of a gamble. The difference between a G and a D can be down to what was on telly the night before or the coincidence of exam questions matching the lessons they attended.

But you care right up to the finish line and beyond, despite the fact that to do so invites brutalising side effects. You can be hurt most by the things and people you care about, and no matter how much you dislocate yourself professionally from your wards (and you must if you want to stay sane), the day you stop caring is the day you hang up your cardigan and walk the green milebecome a consultant.

How many of us have given up weeks of our lives on revision sessions because we know many students are crammers, not planners, and only find gas in their tanks just before the exams? You can yak on all you like about playing the long game, but until exam season looms they won't open a book.

Incidentally, the next time someone asks you if you've "targeted your revision class", feel free to ask them which students don't matter - the least or the most able? We target all of them. And the day we don't is.well, you know.

It's easier to stop caring; it's easier to treat students as shoots of watercress planted in a pot. Some you win, some you lose. But every child mattered long before some jobsworth behind a desk said so. When they win, we win. When they lose, we lose too. Only we get to do it all again next year.

The responsibility and the honour roll around annually, and we harden our hearts and let the students in anyway. That's what being a teacher means, and that's why it's the best job in the world. I can handle the despair. And the hope.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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