The Fear: exactly how much is too much?

15th April 2016 at 00:00

Winter is coming. It looks like summer, but there’s discontent enough for everybody. Exam season lurches towards us as lazily as White Walkers, and the only certainty is that by the last episode of school, they’ll be here. Death and taxes and sir, have you got a pen?

In essence, the school experiences a six-month coronary in the run-up to exams. We’ve spent the past four years telling children this is the most important year of their education and then suddenly it all becomes real.

We tell them ghost stories about The Boy Who Didn’t Study and The Hell of Underachievement, and then tell them not to panic. Relax! You’ll only worry yourself out of a grade. I’m surprised kids don’t physically split in two down the spine.

As well as all the love, we give them The Fear. To be honest, we need The Fear. If you’re not concerned, you’ll merrily wander into the exam room like a badass and wander out with half an hour to spare. The Fear can be good. But how much is enough?

What schools often do is a more elegant and formal form of what many students do in the face of imminent difficulty: cramming. I did. I American Smoothed my way through my own secondary education because I listened hard in class and gave a monkey’s.

Instead of being smart in my revision, though, I left every single subject until the very last moment, slam-dunking all the relevant facts into my short-term memory. Many kids do. You often see students so nonchalant/stressed (delete as appropriate) that they spend all their time devising ever-more complex ways of not studying: Post-its, flashcards and revision schedules that are never used. Study techniques are great, but there are few substitutes for sitting there with the books open and actually thinking about the work that you’ve covered.

It seems that, no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to convey the necessary sense of urgency to some students. Whatever alarm you set off for them (six months, three months) they fumble for the snooze button.

Then wait, just wait, until the week before the exams, and look at their faces. Cheeks drawn and bloodless, slain in the spirit by the raging juggernaut of Nemesis. You can see it in their eyes. They finally realise what’s happening to them.

Here’s the weird thing: all you do is care. At no point have you ever seen a teacher crow and carp and say “See? I TOLD YOU SO.” If they do, it flits across the chambers of their heart in an instant, replaced immediately with “Right. Here’s what we need to do.”

And this is where you often observe the extraordinary, superheroic tendency of most teachers to give, give, give far beyond the boundaries of contract, necessity or reason.

I don’t applaud teachers burying themselves in workloads that crush them. But, by God, there’s something admirable in that legion of mavens, giving up days and nights to catch them at their last stumble – the revision sessions, the study notes, the patient online explanations that never see a timesheet or pay cheque, but create an invisible black market in compassion and wisdom.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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