Last week I started my year 11 lesson slowly. Tuesday morning, after a bank holiday Monday, meant that they were sure to be a bit off school – something I can completely relate to.
Then our Head of Department walks in to have a quick chat – asking how they are going and emphasizing the need for engagement at this stage in the game. Only a few weeks left until exam season starts, and they will be sitting three separate science papers – biology, chemistry and physics. The students sit there with their usual indifference, some looking slightly more alert than others, some looking slightly more interested than others. They’d heard all this before a hundred time – this is important, you need to focus, blah blah blah.
Then the HOD leaves, and I ask the students when their first science exam is. “Some time in June I think , Miss”, says one. “End of May!”, says another. The rest have literally no idea.
One of the girls takes out her exam timetable and says the date that their first exam is, then I say how that is in 2 weeks time.
They couldn’t believe it. We actually had to look at the calendar to prove how close their first exam is, then discuss the fact that the second exam is two days later, and the third a week after that.
It completely astounded me that they were so unaware! These are their finals, and they didn’t even know the dates of them.
Then the personality changes start happening. For those who care about their exams, the stress starts to build almost perceptively. For those who don’t, the apathy only deepens when they realise that I might be launching into another ‘teacher exam talk’.
Even though they seemed to be wholly detached from their exams (how could you be concerned when you don’t even know the date?!), I’ve seen some pretty big changes is my students in the past few weeks. A few of the girls have become increasingly negative, some of the hyperactive boys are becoming even more so, some of the quiet ones are showing signs of anxiety. All of them going through this stress in different ways, and for me that means putting on a whole heap of different teacher/mentor hats to help them out.
For the negative girls (and this may seem sexist, but this year I’ve only seen this personality change in the girls), this involves alternating between sympathetic niceness and firm strictness.
I remember being similarly negative around exam times sometimes (‘the scores don’t matter anyway once you get into uni’, ‘I’m not going to do well so what’s the point stressing’, etc), and I remember different approaches from different people helping in different ways.
The sympathetic niceness is exactly as you’d expect, and involves reassuring them and trying to get them to see some of the positives for their potential outcomes. This approach only works when you’re in the right mood yourself – they can see right though a false niceness, so if you’re not in a good and generous mood then don’t even bother with this one. They will only resent you for it.
The firm strictness can be a dangerous approach, but when done right it often helps more than the niceness. For example when one girl told me she doesn’t care how she does because she’s not going to uni anyway, I responded with a story about a friend who went for a job interview and they asked for all of his educational history back to year 10. Of course she didn’t quite believe me (even though it’s a true story), but then we had an ex-student come in saying how later in her life she decided she wanted to go back to college and couldn’t get in initially because her exit grades were too poor and that’s all the college was concerned about. She had to go back and re-do parts of her final year before they’d let her in. The student backed right off after that, instead thinking of other excuses why ‘it doesn’t even matter’.
I am trying these ways with varying levels of success. What helps one girl on one day only serves to aggravate her the next. It is helping me to read their moods better and predict which approach will work best, but it is tiring.
Similarly, for the hyperactive boys (again not sexist, purely observational) I am taking a dual approach.
Sometimes I let them bounce around the room, throwing balls to each other and talking too loudly about random topics during form time. I will join in on their jokes and make fun of their behaviour when they are getting a bit too ridiculous. If I could, I’d let them out on to the field to kick a ball around.
Why do I do this? Simply because they need to blow off some steam. They are dealing with their stress in the way that best suits them, almost like a nervous twitch, and sometimes trying to stifle that will only result in an outburst of true poor behaviour. In saying that, I do keep them from distracting and annoying other students who do want to use this time in serious revision.
Always during class time and every other day during form I will tell the boys to take some work out (or I provide some for them). When I do this, I make a point of specifically helping them with this work, or having them explain it to me. Focused, intermittent, one-on-one mini revision sessions are much more useful to them (and me) than trying to get them to revise all of the time.
For the students who are becoming increasingly anxious about their exams and performance, there are again two hats I put on. The primary one is of course that of reassurer. They need to hear that everything is going to be ok, that they are smart enough and can actually do this. I make sure I say these things in the tones and language appropriate to each individual, and only to reassure to the point where they are not going to switch off and view it as another adult pandering to them. They don’t need that, and it will only fuel their anxieties. I will never lie to these students, and only tell them what I genuinely expect from them, even if it is a lower score, because telling them I expect more usually only increases their stress levels even more.
If they become overly melodramatic or too self-depreciating, I often turn into a firm, starting-to-lose-my-tolerance mentor. I will tell them to stop it, that they are being silly or ridiculous, and that we both know full well they are capable of achieving (insert thing here). I do this in a very short, firm, but kind way. There is no nastiness involved, purely an adult who will not listen to them moan on about something in a way that is causing them more stress.
This is actually the most successful tactic I’ve used for these sorts of anxiety-induced outbursts (and indeed they often work for the negatives and the hyperactives), because it diffuses their downward spirals simply because it’s not the response they were expecting. When they see I’m not going to sit there and sympathise and give them everything they desire, or passionately argue back, they always end up just getting on with the work. I’ve yet to have a student come out of such a conversation in a negative way, even when it’s started in tears or arguments.
Tell me again how teaching is easy
Dealing with all of these personalities can be tiring, but it is even more tiring altering your own approach for each one, especially when you have to switch between them for each individual student during a lesson or form time. You are trying to placate and encourage around 30 individual human beings here. It’s akin to being a manager, dealing with a 30-person team, only your 30 people are teenagers who are dealing with their end of school exams and are sick of teachers lecturing them about the importance of them. Sometimes even letting the word ‘exam’ slip during conversation will have them immediately switching off.
Exam time for us teachers is not just making sure they know the content, it’s also making sure they are in a good state of mind, and it’s an exhausting chameleon of a job.