I sit and write this now knowing that my students will be thinking a variety of things before their exam. They have worked hard. Yet it is popular to bash students. As is often said in footballing circles, you can only beat what is put in front of you.

Being a teacher redefines my own school experience. I have grey hair now, and my waist line has expanded. Yet on the walls of my study sit medals and certificates of my youthful endeavours. But there was never a point at which I saw the transition. I still see myself as an athletic man, even though my physique says otherwise. Similarly, I have watched my students grow more into the young men and women they are meant to be. But I think they might often miss how that happens themselves.

As I might have blogged before, I was not entirely satisfied by my educational experiences. ┬áThat sense of dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that I was, am in some ways still remain, an earnest individual. For me educational is not about the exam, but about the lived experience. I took English because I didn’t want to to reduce my life to a single subject. For me, the humanities was the study of all subjects – of drawing together theories and passions from all aspects of living, and using them to become a better human being.

That isn’t quite what English is.

There is much consternation in the profession right now. What the powers-that-be believe is that anyone can be a teacher; they believe that there is an army of earnest teachers waiting to take over from those that remain.

There isn’t.

In that space are many teachers who teach because it is a job. Some come into the profession to teach for a few years as ‘excellent graduates’. These people can exert the physical and mental effort need to teach at a high level for a few years because they know that they do not need to reserve energy to continue next year. And the year afterwards. To exemplify this let me remind you of the classic military example of how soldiers learn to keep something back: imagine running 15 miles. You are pushed, and, somehow, you manage to make it to the truck. You are almost at the point of collapse. Upon almost reaching the rest of the vehicle, it pulls away. Despairingly, the truck disappears out of sight. You are forced to run for a, now, indefinite length of time. This time, you have to cope with mental fortitude of running without guidance, of not knowing that the truck will even be there (wherever that is) or if it will stay. Needless to say say, you see it soon, and it disappears.

For some soldiers, this is enough to break them. For those who it doesn’t, they learn to keep something back. They learn to never expend everything in the tank, because you never know how much you might need.

How does this relate to any of my students? Well, I tell them that the exams don’t matter. They don’t matter in the sense that a person’s profession doesn’t matter, but rather how they profess it. Of course, in this climate work experience is king, and to obtain a place in a prestigious university or medical school requires certain grades. In the past, teachers would teach however they taught (by providing a rich intellectual experience similar to this blog, for example!) and those students who would likely pass anyway would pick up what was necessary for the exam by osmosis. And, of course, I live and die by my results – as does my school. Despite the consternation it causes, we stand by the fact we are judged by maths and English results. Yet, despite this, I say that exams don’t matter.

They don’t matter in the sense that they are society’s way of testing how people cope under pressure. The pressure of an exam is arbitrary – I know how capable my students are, and of who inspires and who doesn’t. I know who I trust in their manners and etiquette, and who simply don’t have a clue how to behave at times. Yet that pressure is something that students should deal with, because it leads to the pressure of being a functioning adult (that if you don’t work, you starve. Ish.)

The way I know to cope with such pressure is the place higher standards on myself than that expected by the exam (or by whatever criteria faces me.) Just as importantly, I want to know that my standards are higher than those expected by that situation. In such conditions, the pressure becomes an enjoyable spotlight rather than a arduous shock into action. A recent example of this would be OFSTED – I was working at an OFSTED level prior to their arrival, so my experience was somewhat enjoyable. For others, the pressure was apparent.

At this point a popular poem might be a suitable interlude:

 

Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam.
This test was so simple
There was no way i could fail.

Q1. Describe the taste of the Moon.

It tastes like Creation I wrote,
it has the flavour of starlight.

Q2. What colour is Love?

Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.

Q3. Why do snowflakes melt?

I wrote, they melt because they fall
on to the warm tongue of God.

There were other questions.
They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam
when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of
an elephant’s dream

Yet today, many years later,
For my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat
hotels.

Why? Because constantly I failed
my exams.
Why? Well, let me set a test.

Q1. How large is a child’s
imagination?
Q2. How shallow is the soul of the
Minister for exams?

By Brian Patten
I return to an observation I made about 16 months in my university career: if you’re good enough, you can surely jump through all the hoops required by the institutions, and still have enough intellectual energy left over to do the writing that you really want, on your terms, in your own way.
Maybe, one day!