This is a post I wrote in the run up to results day. I’ve collated it so that it’s chronological, as I wrote different parts at different times.
It’s 4.30am and I am sitting by a stream in Deer Park, Cornwall. I have my phone with me and I’m wearing a warm jumper. My family are asleep, back at the cabin. It’s cold and dark. I have been awake since 4am. My heart is pounding; my hands tremble. This not an episode of generalised anxiety – this is something quite specific. This is not the time for tablets. This is GCSE results day. At 6am, I will log on to the results analysis site and see what my SLT already know and what will be in each envelope for our year 11 students.
For the first time in 13 years, I’m away from school for this day. I was always the sort of teacher who said, “I’d never miss a results day,” but things change; the birth of my daughter, my husband’s accident and a very tragic death in the family this year have drawn us closer. I want to be here, in Cornwall, with multiple generations surrounding me. I’ve got my laptop. We have WiFi access. I can do this from here. I feel bad that I won’t see the students; I really do. I won’t try to justify or excuse that – I feel bad. My faculty know I’m away. We’re close. We have a WhatsApp group and we email each other relentlessly about all and sundry. The 21st century has brought Cornwall closer to Bristol than ever before.
The anticipation feels worse this year – a new specification and no grade boundaries. There are so many inexperienced examiners and I’m terrified that the fate of my students is in the hands of an NQT (please don’t take offence if you’re an NQT. I wouldn’t have trusted myself at that career stage either). I’m worried about the question on structure – did I teach it well enough? I’m worried about specific students (all names changed) – surly CJ and his acute awareness of the issues with his literacy; lovely AP and her exam-room anxiety, NZ and the importance of a 4 for his apprenticeship next year. I’m worried.
Being away has helped with perspective, though.
Anxiety can make us believe that we’re unique, that we’re the only ones feeling like this. It’s crucial that we step back and reflect on why this isn’t true. Every other English and Maths teacher in the UK feels like this on results day. Many international schools await GCSE results, just as we do. Every other subject secondary teacher feels worried, with the added anticipation of losing the legacy specification next year. Every member of SLT felt this way yesterday, with the burden and blessing of early access to results.
As a head of English, I sometimes feel that no other profession experiences pressure like this. It’s simply not true. My closest and oldest friends all experience this in their careers, often daily. Catherine, a barrister, walks into court every day and speaks to defend the truth and the law. If she, well, messes it up, the consequences are calamitous. Real people, real lives, in her hands. Katy Mahood has written a novel – an actual, soon-to-be-published debut novel (Entanglement, released March 2018 by Borough Press). She’s exposing herself to critical feedback on a national scale. The whole country will be able to pass remarks on her work. My friend Elizabeth is a consultant neonatologist. She treats, medicates, operates on and saves tiny, tiny babies. The importance of GCSE results pales into significance here.
There are more – my friend Jayne is a mental health nurse. She wakes at night because the young people she works with are at risk of suicide. They go missing. They commit crimes and they feel scared, confused, alone. Jayne dropped her hours to 4 days a week after having her baby and they increased her caseload. There is no protected planning, preparation and assessment time in nursing. Abby is a clinical scientist at Southmead Hospital. She diagnoses for the oncology patients. She is so utterly overworked that she regularly goes in on a Sunday to catch up. We all work in challenging times and actually, many people seem to work all the time, just as we teachers do.
And yet, a decent education – and GCSE results – are what have enabled my friends to reach such high points in their careers, where their professional decisions have such far-reaching implications. What we do in the classroom and in leading across schools have huge societal implications. An old colleague used to say to me, “a grade C opens doors. A grade D slams them shut.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care or continue to do what we do for our pupils. It’s just that for the first time in 13 years, I have managed to see that if I am working hard, efficiently and effectively, then any further professional navel-gazing is futile.