There is nothing more damaging for your self-confidence as a teacher — except perhaps when a pupil verbalises how “bored” they are in a lesson that you spent hours sweating over the night before — than logging into social media after an exam and being confronted with a swarm of tweets picking apart the most recent paper.
After the recent English literature exams, I found myself mechanically searching all manner of hashtags and reading responses from students and teachers alike. I am not quite sure what I expected to see, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the infinite stream of negativity that dominated social media. Students were criticising their teachers, claiming that they were ill-prepared for the question, and teachers were slating the exam boards.
In a display of collective anxiety after the first wave of students sat the newly-styled GCSE English exams, many teachers took to social media platforms to air their apprehensions. I could feel the panic of hundreds of English teachers seeping out of my screen: the questions were “worded in a confusing manner”, “not matched equally in level of difficulty” and so on.
Of course, it didn’t actually help that this year’s papers contained genuine errors from the exam boards — I’m sure we can all remember that feeling of smug satisfaction, displaced swiftly with sheer terror, when we were all made aware of AQA’s Jekyll and Hyde chapter inaccuracy and OCR’s Tybalt faux-pas.
Perusing these feeds after the Shakespeare exam, I felt myself becoming flustered and was almost inclined to join in the conversations deriding the exam boards. I had only covered the umbrella theme of violence in Romeo and Juliet — had I carelessly missed the opportunity to focus more specifically on male aggression? Would my students have been disadvantaged by my choice to remain gender-neutral? My self-confidence wavered and I honestly questioned my aptitude for teaching.
But here’s the reality of the situation: it wasn’t the exam itself that elicited this feeling in me; it was social media.
The most difficult reading by far was the attacks on the teachers themselves. I wanted to defend my silent colleagues, who were being publicly condemned by pupils who felt cheated by the whole exam process. Some particularly disheartened students had even ventured to suggest that their “failing” teachers would be fired as soon as results came in. I wanted to scream at my newsfeed; I wanted to make them understand how hard we teachers have worked to prepare them for these new, more challenging exams. My thumbs itched as I imagined what I could say and how I could say it.
Obviously, I didn’t respond. My rational thinking took over, reminding me that it’s not that the kids themselves are being ungrateful; nor is this a problem of “failing” teachers all across the country. This is both a problem caused by the significant increase in the level of the GCSE English content, imposed by an out-of-touch government, and by social media increasingly becoming one of the only vessels through which we can mutually (and with some semblance of anonymity) express our fears.
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I am reading too much into things. Or perhaps social media actually is detrimental to our self-confidence as teachers. Being witness to endless negativity and panic surely is damaging — especially when you’re already feeling vulnerable after seeing your Year 11 sit a particularly lengthy exam.
The fact is, we need to remember that we are excellent teachers who continually go above and beyond for our students in order to help them pass these incredibly complex exams.
My suggestion? Whatever happens on the day, steer clear of trawling social media after an exam. It won’t make you feel any more at ease. Instead, use that time to relax and remember that you’re doing a great job.
Laura Thorne is assistant head of English at Redbridge Community School in Southampton. She tweets @lauthorne