Should you a) relax or b) start panicking?

1st May 2015 at 01:00
Exam time is testing for everyone involved, including teachers - so when the dread descends, follow this advice to stay calm

The dreams started sporadically in February. They have steadily increased in frequency. Now, once or twice a week, my husband finds me awake and wide-eyed in the wee small hours, muttering about grade boundaries, levels and value-added statistics. Sometimes it's the usual clichs: pyjamas, an exam hall, people pointing and laughing. On other occasions, my subconscious gets more creative: my pen suddenly transforms into a snake or the paper comes to life and starts questioning my ability with a relish that would make Jeremy Paxman blush.

Although I'd like to think that these dreams are worthy of Jungian analysis, indicating my immense complexity and deep genius, the truth, I suspect, is that they are straightforward anxiety dreams - no doubt sharing features with the night-time imaginings of plenty of other teachers, and their students, as the summer exam season looms.

I don't think I'm alone in suffering the stresses and strains of exam anxiety alongside the children I teach. Do we worry because we know our own performance will be judged on the results of such tests? Of course. It's common for performance management targets to be based on your pupils' achievement, and it's therefore a special kind of torture to pace around an exam hall, watching as one of them writes the correct answer, gazes at it for a few seconds and then rubs it out, while you recreate Edvard Munch's The Scream in your head.

But it's not just self-interest that motivates teachers' exam anxiety. You've spent a year or more supporting, encouraging and motivating these students, and you want them to succeed for their own sake. It can be heartbreaking when they struggle, especially when you know the problem isn't their ability to answer the questions but to cope with such intense pressure.

When I hear mumblings about apathetic teachers in the media or from acquaintances, I always wonder if these people have actually visited a school in the run-up to or during exam season. Flies on the wall would see teachers offering tea and sympathy, giving up their breaks to coach worried students. They'd see the after-school catch-up clubs and the impassioned staffroom discussions about our hopes and concerns for particular children.

They might also see teachers in tears, copious amounts of coffee being consumed and working days extending well beyond reasonable hours. Because we're not always very good when it comes to practising what we preach to the children. I have extolled the virtues of plenty of rest, a hearty breakfast and a measured approach on countless occasions, but there's still a good chance you'll find me hiding out in my stock cupboard during breaktime in exam week, eating leftover Christmas chocolate and quietly questioning my abilities despite the fact that I've come through the experience with good results for more than five years now.

It's not healthy. So what can we do to get ourselves through it?

Take your own advice

You tell the students to get enough sleep and eat properly, so you need to do the same. Make the time to eat proper meals at proper times and ensure that you unwind before sleep, rather than rushing headlong from marking to bed with your brain still buzzing.

Seek comfort in company

The knowledge that you are not alone in feeling under siege can be incredibly helpful. A shared look of sympathy with colleagues in the same boat; team meetings where exhausted hilarity takes over; the sense that you are all pulling in the same direction towards the same aims - all these can help foster a certain Blitz spirit that makes it easier to handle the stress and anticipation.

Let it out

If you bottle up your anxiety, the eventual release will be explosive. Instead, make the effort to acknowledge your stress and talk to others about it - this will allow you to control it and ensure that it doesn't appear at awkward moments. Talking to students is useful, too. Ultimately, they deserve to have teachers who care enough to suffer alongside them. I'm not advocating giving free rein to your own panic, of course, but a little empathy goes a long way.

Remember your own experiences

Tests and exams are something we all have to go through. I can't honestly say that I look forward to reliving my own GCSEs and A-levels each spring, but it does enable me to tell the young people something important: "I was worried too, and I survived. So will you."

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Cheltenham

What else?

Explore anxiety triggers and ways of reducing stress.


Use this exam support booklet to help your students revise.


Explore the science behind stress and anxiety.


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