The rules every teacher has to remember during exam season

13th May 2016 at 00:00
The teacher’s role during exam season can be a confusing one, with multiple emotions and duties to contend with. Stephen Petty offers a comprehensive guide to ensure that both you and your students make it through unscathed

In my first few years of teaching, I remember the broad East Anglian sky being full of flying eggs and water-bombs every time the Year 11s’ last day of school before study leave rolled around. For the young new teacher in particular, it was a tense time of fearful glancing, ducking and diving.

There was one especially dedicated local family where the latest Year 11 leaver in the brotherhood would always assume centre-stage on such a day. As with previous siblings, he would stand nonchalantly waiting for us all at the main entrance, lobbing his eggs from some antique family-heirloom ammunition box packed specially by the vast mother. The entire family plainly considered the day as some kind of rite of passage to “get Petty”.

One of the few welcome consequences of increased accountability is that most teachers are now spared that day of oval anarchy. Nowadays, Year 11s never really have a last day, as the idea of letting them all go on study leave is deemed far too risky a proposition for a school’s exam results (and consequent league-table rating).

Instead, Year 11s now carry on with lessons throughout most of their exam period, eventually disappearing from the school in dribs and drabs during the first half of June, depending on the date of each candidate’s last exam.

But this new extra month of teaching brings with it many new challenges. Where once, the teacher’s role during exam season amounted to sporadic short outbursts of pre-exam support and post-exam analysis, today, things are decidedly more involved. The students are still in our classrooms, they are still our charges, and they are still looking to us for guidance. We feel like parents whose grown-up offspring are still with us in the nest: it’s lovely to support them still, but when exactly will they ever get the idea of flying off and doing it for themselves?

There’s a tricky balancing act to perform here between support and autonomy, between letting them go and ensuring they don’t go too far down the wrong path or that we fail in our duty to them.

As such, there’s clearly now a need for some kind of Exam Season Rulebook for teachers. Below is exactly that: 18 rules to get you through the period safely.

Teachers must all be Tom Hiddlestone in The Night Manager

One of the more disappointing characters in the recent BBC television drama The Night Manager was the rarely-seen teacher partner of the pregnant heroine, Olivia Colman. His was a disappointing depiction of the profession. He only made two brief appearances. First, he was slumped and asleep with a book over his head. Later, he was slumped and beaten-up, groaning “I’m all right”. Such a portrayal may serve as an apt representation of the plight of teachers today, but it is certainly not the template we should be following these next few weeks.

Instead we must adopt the character of Tom Hiddleston’s hotel night manager-turned-spy – calm, resourceful, smiling and persuasive in students’ final dark few hours before the dawn. These are exactly the kind of cool, self-disciplined, confidence-inspiring characters that our students need to find at the reception desk at this stage. We must get across the idea that we are all working together to outwit and overpower those smart, devious Hugh Laurie-type fellows setting the exams.

Hypocrisy is now mandatory

Hypocrisy is essential at this time. We must resolve to contradict ourselves repeatedly. We must advise our over-anxious, hard-working students not to fret too much and to get plenty of rest and exercise. But when those worriers are safely out of earshot, we warn the carefree and lazy that exams are all about “life chances”. Similarly, we tell some of our students that their promising controlled-assessment mark is already a great boost to their eventual exam grade; while we tell those with lower coursework marks that it’s all quite irrelevant compared to the amount of marks available in the exam.

Parents should not, under any circumstances, have an easy ride

I will be group emailing the parent of every child in my Year 11 class, advising them in some detail on what students can most usefully do at home and how parents might help and monitor. It will not make the slightest difference to the amount of work done by some students, but it will make a big difference to others.

Roy Hodgson, of England football management fame, should be respected at all times

Euro 2016 will be of no consequence to some students, but for others it will probably mean several hours of lost revision just before a major exam. For example, England play Wales on the evening of 16 June and there is a geography exam the next day. Similarly, England play Slovakia on 20 June, the night before a history exam. Gently make students aware that they need to make up for this lost time before the match starts.

There is ALWAYS more work to do…

Remember the recent story of the postmaster from Cornwall who forgot to post a customer’s passport and then travelled 300 miles by car and rail (with three changes) to deliver it to him personally? Many of us will now be acting way beyond the call of duty too, in terms of all the free tuition offered at lunchtime, after-school, at weekends and over half-term – not to mention marking deep into the night so that students have work back soon enough to be useful. The students are the ones who should be doing most of the work, yes, but we do send a strong work ethic message to them if we can manage the odd exceptional gesture.

…but we must also remember who is actually taking these exams

We can become obsessively supportive. We should take our own exam-period advice: we should take breaks, get exercise and still ensure that we have relaxing times with our friends and loved ones. We are made to feel responsible for exam performance these days, but we need to look after ourselves and not overestimate the difference that we can make at this late stage.

All interdepartmental rucks should be taken outside the school gates

The adapted timetable will almost certainly mean that significant numbers of our Year 11 class will occasionally be missing. They will have been re-timetabled to attend another subject’s specially extended revision session – probably on the eve of the exam in that subject. We should avoid too much indignation at such times. Our turn for priority treatment will come later…probably – though that might depend on whether we’re an English Baccalaureate subject or not. Besides, we only want what’s in the best interests of the students, don’t we?

An English teacher’s room is no longer his castle; it is likely to be one of several other random places around the school, so deal with it

Another potentially exasperating feature of this period is “re-rooming”. We must continue to display that positive and unruffled demeanour we spoke of earlier to ensure that our anxious youngsters are not unduly put out when:

a) we find that our usual classroom is being used as a makeshift exam hall.

b) the steel door to the designated alternative classroom in the technology block appears to be locked in three different places.

c) we eventually get in and discover that the technician appears to have turned off the room’s hidden power supply switch in case some intruder goes berserk with one of the drills. We should acknowledge that, given our current emotional state after making a futile trek around half the school at this point, perhaps he has made a very wise decision.

All teachers must fall out of love with the sound of their own voice

As the date of the exam closes in, we can easily spend far too much time talking from the front, in the fond belief that everyone is suddenly learning from our crystal-clear re-explanation of the entire course. Some clarifications can be useful, but it is generally much more helpful at this stage for us to get students to work on topics and exam questions themselves, pooling their ideas in groups and then as a whole class. I know this advice sounds insultingly obvious, but some of us can hear ourselves making this same mistake time after time.

Dithering will not be tolerated: call it either a ‘club’ or a ‘clinic’ and stand by that decision

What should we best call those “extra” extra revision sessions for selected students? Revision “club” has a slightly friendlier tone to it and suggests a certain sense of prestige and exclusivity for those students instructed to attend. “Clinic” sounds colder and indicates that the students concerned are in some way ill, but it does imply some promise of remedial treatment by the end of the course. A tricky choice.

Let them eat cake

If the department budget can stretch to it, we should get hold of some decent cake to take into some of our lessons, particularly for the clubs (or clinics…). In my experience, cake does more for a revision session than biscuits and sweets. Biting into a clump of lemon sponge somehow draws the student into a greater level of instant commitment than any number of here-today-gone-tomorrow Hobnobs.

Be clear that time waits for no man, and it definitely won’t wait for students

It’s a rookie mistake, but a common one: not allowing enough time for the final, high-mark question is a post-exam regret that every teacher has witnessed all too many times. It is worth running through a past paper just one more time, reminding them of its structure, pointing out marks and advising on timings.

Multiple-mark questions are your problem, too

Thousands of students come out of exams blissfully unaware that they have failed to answer one or two longer questions relevantly or fully enough. We need to put a stop to this by showing students some typical questions and made-up examples of this happening and ask them to identify what is lacking from the answer. This offers a chance to go through the exact meaning of key instruction words, too. We should never assume that pupils are too familiar with all of this. Actually, these are teenagers – we should never assume anything.

Mark Zuckerberg will always win, but use him – don’t abuse him

The phone is God to young people, and it will continue to distract students no matter how many times you tell them that it will be their downfall. So embrace it. Get yourself on Facebook as a class and create a temporary support page. If they are going on their phone, we can at least make it more helpful than the latest cat video. Meanwhile, point them towards apps like GoConqr (, which can help students to produce and share mind maps and other revision tools. Another app, SelfControl (, enables students to block certain sites and to keep temptation at bay.

Every teacher MUST provide a detailed version of the story of Cliff

Cliff Young was a 61-year-old farmer in overalls and gumboots who won a 500 mile race in Australia after being left behind at the start by all the younger, more logoed athletes. Cliff eventually won because he had developed incredible powers of endurance after rounding up sheep at all hours of the day. While the other competitors slept overnight, he simply carried on running. It’s the ultimate hare and tortoise story and one that might just connect with any doubting students. It proves that anyone can achieve greatness if they prepare for it.

Preparation for the grim-faced invigilator is essential

Greg Davies, stand-up comic and ex-teacher, tells a story about being an invigilator and competing with fellow teachers to do the silliest walk during their stint pacing the rows. That sort of thing never happens now. Teachers do not invigilate, it’s done by people brought in from the “outside” and you need to prepare students for the brutal, impassive face of this modern version of invigilation. We need to explain to students that it is entirely in their own best interests for it to be like that and that they should stay confident and positive despite this severe beginning.

Any resting on laurels before exams will be severely punished

Gone are the days when teachers on the morning of an exam would flounce past a huddle of last-minute revisers with a scornful “If you don’t know it now, you never will”. Nowadays, it is never considered too late. We work with Year 11s to the very last minute – sometimes literally – offering mass mock exams in maths within 24 hours of the real exam and pre-exam warm-up activities in other subjects. It all feels a bit over-the-top (and, frankly, a rather sad comment on what has happened to learning and education today), but it does boost students’ grades.

Remember, just being there is the most important thing you can do

We can become preoccupied with trying to do so much during the exam period that we can forget the most important thing of all: just being there, available and ready to help when students need it. Yes, the other rules are important (if a little tongue-in-cheek in some cases), but all you really need to remember is that you are a crucial shoulder for your students to rest on: emotionally, academically and physically. If you remember that, and act accordingly, you won’t go too far wrong.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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