I’ve been watching a UK TV series called Tough Young Teachers, which follows some bright young graduates through their first year of teaching.
It has been compelling television: we’ve had passion, conviction, despair – highs and lows of working with young people to get them the best possible start in life. It finished on a slightly sad note, with a Year 11 student looking at his GCSE results and saying in muted tones that he’d like to have ‘done things differently’.
It made me reflect on our role as teachers, and how we help students facing crucial and potentially life-changing GCSE and IB examinations this summer. Someone once wrote that the saddest words in the English language are ‘if only’, and I’ve always thought that teachers need to do everything possible to help students never have to use them.
So what can we do? We can, of course, offer as much support for exam preparation as possible. We run sessions in lots of different subjects where students come in to clarify things they don’t understand, to practise exam questions, or to discuss approaches to tackling problems. But this won’t fix the ‘if only’ problem. So we also need to cajole, suggest, encourage and sometimes ‘force’ students to come to these sessions, or to do extra questions for homework.
This is the time of year when we become a little more prescriptive and pushy, where we don’t allow people to get away with ‘I’ll do it later’ and where we bring our experience of what really works for students to bear.
Students often ask about ‘study leave’ as though this is a good thing. We do as little of it as possible. If you’re at school you’ll do five or six hours work, and then go home and do some more in the evening. On study leave, a couple of hours in the morning and a bit after lunch can feel like a solid day’s work. Year 13s will be leaving school soon enough – they might as well make the most of every last minute in the days leading up to exams.
No-one likes this kind of exam preparation, least of all teachers. We know, however, that by helping to support students where their enthusiasm for study on their own falters, we help to make sure that the summer is a time of possibility, not of ‘if only’.
Now that’s motivating.