Friendship in the Making

Prior to moving abroad five years ago, I tended to socialise with friends from outside of the work setting. This wasn’t anything necessarily deliberate and also didn’t mean that I had drawn a thick line in the sand separating work and home life (I still developed friendships with colleagues too!), but it was just the way things worked out at the time. Saying that, since working in the environment that I have in Vietnam, I have become more aware of drawing a line of some sort between my work and home life, if just to avoid some of the anxieties surrounding office social cliques. Something that I feel is heightened when in an environment such as the one I worked in.

***

It was Friday night and the last day of the formal induction period for the new staff and the school had arranged a social evening on site for all staff to get acquainted. I had been in Vietnam for less than a week and whilst still suffering some of the effects of jet-lag during the week, I had also been busy setting up my classroom, opening a bank account, filling in countless pages of paperwork for work permits and health insurance, and generally finding my feet.

It was the first time that I was going to properly meet many of the existing staff and the event was going to test aspects of the social anxiety I sometimes experience in novel situations. I can remember heading for safety once I arrived into the arms of the group of other newbies, but after a couple of drinks I ventured out to do some meeting and greeting. Alcohol can be good like that.

I managed to chat to a significant proportion of colleagues over the course of the evening, who provided valuable insights into adjusting to life in Vietnam, plus gossip was traded about the underbelly of the school itself, a necessary rite of passage when you start at any organisation. But it was at this time that I also made what turned out to be a classic social faux pas, I chose not to continue the merriment at a club in the city, having turned down the invite from an existing colleague Jane. I was tired from the amount of information that I had absorbed over the course of the week, and also from having to maintain the friendly work face to a heap of new people, so I just wanted to go to bed. At the time I thought little of it.

It was only a few weeks later at a birthday celebration for a colleague who had arranged afternoon tea when I noticed something was up. I joined a group of female staff on the taxi ride as we all lived in the same staff accommodation. After making a few attempts at small talk, I realised that I wasn’t gaining any ground, and in particular, Jane appeared to actively excluding me from participating in any conversation, with chat focusing quite deliberately on their activities over the weekend. I tried to push down the feelings of discomfort and hold onto the fact that I was 31 and not 14 years old. Surely, I wasn’t getting blanked?

Well, it turned out my intuition was correct and I was getting blanked because as soon as we arrived at the venue, the group scuttled to the last remaining seats at the table leaving myself and one other colleague who had also arrived in the same taxi without a place to sit. Heather had been sat up front on the journey and so although we had been introduced and chatted before on a few occasions, we didn’t know each other very well.

The woman who’s birthday we were celebrating immediately came over for a chat before apologising about the lack of space on the main table. Subsequently, the cafe owner sat Heather and me together with another late-comer to the gathering on a table a few metres away, where, aside from a few people passing to stop and chat over the course of the afternoon on their way to the bathroom, we were largely on the periphery of the action.

It was a strange and memorable afternoon for a number of reasons, but two things stand out now that I look back. Firstly and most importantly, I discovered a wonderful connection with Heather that day and we are still incredibly good friends, and secondly, it transpired that the reason for the cold shoulders from the rest of the group was due to the fact that they saw me as ‘boring’, because I hadn’t hit the clubs with them a few weeks previously. It was, in fact, Heather who told me this, and at the time, her admission upset me. I couldn’t even see past how ridiculous the whole thing was for a long time afterwards. But perhaps the craziest thing in all of this was that Jane didn’t appear to see past this too, and she would barely exchange two words with me when we passed in a corridor at work during the entire academic year, although she did seem happy enough to glare at me instead. I felt like a teenager again who had been refused a seat at the popular kid’s table (quite literally in the case of this particular birthday party).

The events at the birthday party and other situations that followed involving Jane and this particular group of women were reminiscent of the film of ‘Mean Girls’, and as much as I tried to ignore the feelings of inadequacy that tended to bubble up after yet another awkward encounter, things only became easier when she left at the end of that academic year. Looking on the bright side, at least I wouldn’t have to see her again.

***

Part of me wonders if it is the nature of working abroad and moving in a transient foreigner/expat (I am not a particular fan of the latter term) bubble that means relationships develop out of necessity to connect in the first instance than any real, true bond. I would partly agree with this sentiment because as humans we all have a desire (more like biological need) to connect with others and much like dating, you may have to look around and dig deep to find people who you share common interests with. However, saying this I did make some wonderful friends in my (now) previous teaching position, and many of whom I worked with fairly closely at a curriculum level.

As much as I found aspects of the above experience and others difficult and confusing during my time at the school, it taught me a number of things (as life is all about looking for those lessons when looking in the rear mirror, right?). Firstly, good friends are hard to come by and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have reached a point in my life where I don’t have the energy to deal with friends who are continually flaky with their time for me or friends that want only a superficial connection. It’s those friends that have your back during the good and the bad (and hopefully assume that you’re not boring because you don’t want to attend a social event), that make a friendship worthwhile.

Secondly, I have finally realised that not everyone is going to like me. Gosh, this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn! As a fully paid up member of the people pleaser club and having spent a significant chunk of my teens, twenties and dare I say it, my thirties too worrying about what someone else thinks of me, it makes me want to scream. That’s not to say that the mental energy was all completely wasted, it is sometimes important to at least consider another person’s viewpoint of something you may have said or done but when it verges on obsession (as it has at times with me), it becomes thoroughly exhausting. That mental energy could have been better spent elsewhere.

To that end, I am going to be more self-aware of the bonds I create and particularly the ones I actively foster with colleagues when I start my new position.

  • Names have been changed

Where do I go from here?

I finished work last week after what has at least felt like a long term since Easter. So much so, that I sank into a period of what I can only describe as utter exhaustion once the final bell rang for the school day and for my career at the school.

The last few days of work were a whirlwind of events; including graduation and award ceremonies, talent shows and also farewell assemblies for those who were leaving this year. I was one of those members of staff leaving for pastures new.

I wrote in my previous post about some of the wonderful students who I have had the privilege of working with over the past three years. But I have also worked with some colleagues who have opened my eyes to new experiences and caused me to challenge some of my own preconceptions in the teaching bubble and outside of it.

So in my next post, I am going to explore some of those experiences, now that I have the energy and space to reflect on the ride that has been living and working in Vietnam for the past three years.

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

A few weeks ago I signed myself up for the ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course, part of WordPress University. I was really excited from the off as I was hoping to spend time working on my writing muscles and also engage with fellow bloggers.

I have a tendency to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to ‘getting shit done’, believing that there is always more that I could be doing. But I have been trying to stick to my commitment, that is, of posting at least once a week.

That was until this past week or so because work happened… Well, to be more specific, a new job happened.

As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts I have been torn for some time between whether to remain in teaching or not (I am talking at least five years). It is the only profession I have known apart from stints of working in various retail outlets and then a waitress when I was a student, and I can’t leave out the two years doing a newspaper round in the neighbourhood in which I grew up. But in the past few years I have been toying with the idea of leaving to do something different, either still within the field of education or breaking away entirely.

The idea of toying of leaving was very nearly going to become my reality when, after some months I was unable to find another teaching job. I work in the international circuit having left the UK five years ago and, unlike three years ago when I first moved to SE Asia, this time it was going to be much more difficult. In the first instance, my search area was restricted due to a move to be with my partner and also because the teaching market where he is based is incredibly competitive. Most, but certainly not all, international schools have many of their positions filled by Christmas with some advertising as early as September/October for the following academic year. By March, I was resigned to the fact that I would be moving without a job and would be living off some of my savings for an indefinite period of time.

But then a job came up and despite some mixed feelings about applying for it; primarily due to the resigned feeling and wondering whether I still want to teach, I put in an application. And things went from there.

I had an interview and received an offer a little over a week ago.

And the best thing? I am really excited about it!

A ‘CAREER GIRL?’

Each week at work like the rest of the teaching faculty, I am required to do two playground duties, one of which takes place in the morning before lessons begin. It’s a fairly uneventful and unexciting responsibility (unlike some of my experiences when I was working in the UK), where I wander around for twenty minutes, chat to students, give them a teacher glare if they are even thinking about doing something off the school-rules-book and perhaps catch up with a few colleagues.

The vast majority of the time nothing actually happens. That was until this Wednesday when a colleague who works in the higher echelons of the school hierarchy stopped to say hello. Although in fact, his greeting consisted of “Have you got a job yet?”

This is a fairly standard question I get asked nowadays, after all, I handed in my notice to my current employers some months ago. In the time since I have had one interview (although I have only applied for two jobs due to my location restrictions) and was unsuccessful in that case. I usually reply with a smile and “Nope, nothing at the moment” or something to a similar effect. But this time, whether it was frustration, defensiveness, general annoyance, the fact that it was a Wednesday or all of the above, I changed tact. Instead, I replied with “Does that have to be the first question I get asked?”

So that prompted a surprised reaction for both of us, he hadn’t been expected that response, even his facial expressions and body language spoke volumes as he arched his back and glanced around. And I was surprised at myself for saying what I have been thinking for some time actually out loud.

“I am worried about you,” he said leaning in. “A career girl like you, not having another job yet. I thought you’d have one by now.”

I didn’t want to share with him that I am seriously considering taking a break from teaching, I don’t believe that it is any of his business. Plus at this point, I was annoyed by his line of questioning and the patronising manner in which he approached the subject.

It’s interesting because as I read back over what I have written so far, there is a part of me that is muttering away: Stop being so defensive! He was only asking out of concern, why make a mountain out of a molehill? I will concede that perhaps the reason for his initial query was out of genuine interest and concern, but I am curious, would a man be told that they are a ‘career boy’ for the same reasons I was? I find it unlikely.

For whatever the justifications for his concern and his perceived label of me, I have unearthed a few positives from the encounter. Firstly, when I next get asked: “Have you got a job yet?” I will try and steer the conversation in a different direction, one hopefully that doesn’t entail an analysis of my career to date. Secondly and more significantly, I have also reassessed a number of things, particularly in relation to how I label myself.

Am I a ‘career girl/woman/person?’

I wouldn’t define myself in this way as there is an implication that I originally set out in teaching to achieve what I have (particularly in terms of having a management position), or that I indeed want to continue climbing the career ladder if I were to stay teaching. In actual fact, the latter does not fill me with much motivation in the slightest! So I guess I’d like to thank my colleague for helping reaffirm this for me.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?

When I was at school and university, I was asked on a number of occasions by careers guidance counsellors: “What do you want to be when you’re older?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years time?”

Whilst some of my peers were able to provide a concrete plan of their values, goals and dreams, I often found myself unable to answer. Well, provide an answer that the counsellor at the time wanted to hear.

I didn’t know.

The result of this uncertainty and confusion about my life led me to generally provide a monosyllabic response, to which I would be handed a heavy tome containing details of possible careers to review in my own time. This was before the days of internet searches for information. Even my UCAS application was in paper form.

I wasn’t trying to be impertinent with what were well-meaning counsellors, but I genuinely had no clue what I wanted to do. Even my subject choices at A-Level and for my undergraduate degree were things I didn’t give enough thought to. In hindsight, I can see that particularly for my degree, I was more concerned with what others thought was best for me or what I thought others would think was best for me, rather than considering if it would be something I would enjoy or matched what I valued at the time. Wonderful friends and the other opportunities of studying for my degree aside, I still to this day regret my degree choice.

As I got older, the pressure of having a clear plan became ever more significant. When I was nearing graduation I knew that I would need something to do, something to be aiming for. My parents, although amazing, weren’t simply going to fund me whilst I still evaluated my future.

So I turned to teaching.

I am wincing slightly as I write that, as though teaching is a safe and easy option as it most certainly isn’t! However, having family members who were teachers and growing up in an environment that placed a high level of importance on the value of education, I wondered if it could be a career option for me.

So I set myself the goal of becoming a teacher. And a year or so later, I graduated and was preparing for my first teaching position.

Of course I have made it sound terribly simplistic and I am clearly choosing to ignore and/or repress some of the challenges that I experienced on the way (like the student in one placement school who would constantly comment on my figure or the teacher who wouldn’t support me when I complained about said student for instance). I wanted to give up, many times and despite my feelings about my role and the education system now, I am glad that I persevered. I have largely loved teaching the subjects that I teach, enjoyed the camaraderie of the teaching staff and I have worked with some truly remarkable young people who I will never forget.

To that end, having received some positive feedback from the school where I interviewed a few weeks ago it made me realise that whatever happens next in my career or even in five years, whether I remain in education or not, I will always have a bucketload of experience and stories to share. 

SO I DIDN’T GET THE JOB, WHAT NEXT?

Following my last post about an unsuccessful application and subsequent interview at an international school, it got me thinking about my next steps. Well, I have to really… a job isn’t going to find me and beat me round the head until I accept after all.

And what I found myself really focusing upon was, what next? Where do I go from here? So I felt that the next logical step was to break my thinking down:

  • ASK FOR FEEDBACK

As soon as I had overcome some of the feelings of rejection, I emailed the school and asked for some feedback. I am still waiting for a response but I would like to know, and subsequently examine, their impressions of both my application and how I interviewed. Warts and all. Whether I stay in teaching or not, this information will be valuable for my own professional development in any field. In a broader sense, it also demonstrates that a candidate wasn’t necessarily just applying for a job on a whim, they genuinely want to understand the application process.

  • ASSESS MY REASONS FOR APPLYING FOR THE JOB IN THE FIRST PLACE

This was one of the first questions that I was asked in the interview, ‘Why do you want to work at this school?’ And in all honestly, I was completely thrown by it. Nerves had kicked in and my mind went blank, why did I want to work at the school? At the time, I recall rambling something about the school’s ethos but can remember little else. I was, and still am a little embarrassed by my response, it was weak. And in actual fact, I had had a week to prepare for the interview and I know that I hadn’t wasted my time. I prepped the shit out of it! I analysed the school website to see what courses were offered aside from what I was applying for, researched the school motto, and the school’s aims to gauge a ‘feeling’ of the place and tried to establish if the school was somewhere where I wanted to work.

Looking back now, I realise that although it made sense to apply for the position (as it fitted my teaching skills and experience) when it came down to it, I have realised that my heart wasn’t entirely in it. Nerves aside, the fact that I couldn’t articulate the reasons why I wanted the job hindered my interview and perhaps allowed the interviewers to see the real me. Having been on the other side of the interview process myself for the past few years, you can spot when someone is not being entirely honest with you or with themselves.

  • GET NETWORKING AND LOOK FOR OTHER OPPORTUNITIES

One of the next steps I took was to reconnect with the group I worked with when I completed the careers course late last year. It does appears a little superficial to have not made contact with the group for some months and then only to reach out when I have been unsuccessful. And perhaps that’s where I have been going ‘wrong’ in some ways, that I haven’t made more of an effort during the better times, such as getting an interview offer in the first place. I certainly found myself genuinely surprised at how long it had been since I last made contact, but what struck me was how wonderfully supportive the group are. There are a few hundred people now, all in differing stages of shifting in their careers – whether it’s moving on to something entirely different or within the same field, everyone has their own story to share. And it’s these stories that help you to keep on moving, to force yourself to put one foot after the other and not to give up with whatever the aim.

For me, it is about getting back on the saddle and moving on. I have caught myself feeling terribly weary and worrying about what the future will hold. I don’t have a crystal ball and strangely, I don’t want one. Where would the excitement be in that?!

NEXT STEPS…

There is a funny kind of irony in that my last post was about accepting rejection and I have experienced a big fat dollop of it this week.

Shortly after Christmas, I applied for a teaching position in another international school. On paper (or the website) the school looked ideal; amazing location both in terms of its place in the world (Hong Kong – where my partner is also based) and literally in terms of bricks and mortar, built into the hills of Hong Kong island overlooking the sea. The school achieves fantastic results and the building facilities looked incredible. I felt as though my application was strong and having spoken to management at my current school, who would ultimately be writing my references, they felt that I stood a good chance.

However, I did experience some serious doubts. Putting yourself through any application and interview process is scary as hell, you are pretty much laying a part of yourself bare for others to stare at and scrutinise. What has compounded matters also is that part of me has reached ‘panic stage’ in terms of my next career steps. Three years ago I was secure in the knowledge that I already had a (teaching) job lined up for the next academic year, which is where I am currently working. Three years later and another three months on… I have nothing.

So following a few tense weeks from submitting my application I was invited for a final interview with three members of the management team including the headteacher. After a shaky start where I was asked some questions related to my reasons for considering Hong Kong and the school itself (I was incredibly but understandably nervous, so I rambled), I got into my stride and felt a little more comfortable with the process. Questions ranged from how I would encourage independent and critical thinking from students, what additional activities and support could I offer to the school and also how I deal with stress. There is another funny kind of irony here when as part of the psychology course that I deliver involves teaching students about the physiological function of stress and how to combat it, yet I struggle with handling stress myself…

The interview lasted around 40 minutes and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was over. So much so that with the adrenaline that was coursing through my body I had to go out for a walk to help myself calm down.

Two days passed before I heard back. Two. Long. Days.

The email was complimentary but to the point: There was a strong list of candidates… the choice wasn’t easy… but there were others who provided a closer fit…

I did become a little upset at reading it and I was disheartened at the rather generic response, but really who am I to complain? There could have been a number of candidates interviewed for a variety of positions and I am sure that the administrative team simply weren’t able to send out personalised responses to all of those who were unsuccessful.

So I guess it’s onwards and upwards… and back to the drawing board in terms of next the next steps in my career.

MAKING A CAREER SIDE SHIFT

I have been relatively quiet on the career change front on my blog for awhile now as I didn’t want to somehow jinx (damn, those gremlins again casting doubt on my actions) what I have been working on.

So what have I been up to?

An actual career shift…well, the first tentative steps.

Yep, I’ve said it and no whispering here! I have even said it out loud, admittedly to myself as evidence of things ‘happening.’ I have been working on something concrete, totally tangible and I have actually received a little money for some of my efforts.

So let’s go back a bit.

Around four months ago, I got in touch with a company that make resources for teachers and students for various academic subjects. My original intention for reaching out was simple; I wanted to find out whether if they would accept some of my academic blog posts to publish on their website. I certainly didn’t expect any remuneration for it, it was more about seeking recognition in a different sense – it was about getting my name out there with some of my work. I guess part of me would have hoped that this would progress to something more, but writing for the love of writing was/is the priority. 

After a few emails going back and forth between myself and the company, a Skype meeting was arranged and to my surprise, I found out that they wanted more; not just blog posts but they wanted physical teaching and learning resources produced that then would be available for purchase.

In the few months since, I have written a number of blog posts, produced some resources and began preparing some training materials that will be delivered in 2017. Baby steps, but they are in a different direction.

There is still part of me that is still cautious about saying too much right now, even to loved ones and even to myself about the work involved, as those gremlins have a habit of tipping huge buckets of water over my parade. But suffice to say, I feel excited and also valued in my contributions so far and I am looking forward (despite some of my gremlins saying things to the contrary) to what 2017 will bring.

SO THIS BUSY THING…

A few weeks ago a colleague and friend suggested a drink after work. We hadn’t seen one another properly for a few weeks apart from whizzing around the corridors, giving one another a brief ‘Hi!’ and ‘You alright?’ before shooting off to our next class or meeting.

So when she suggested a drink, I hesitated. I wanted to hang out, perhaps even grab a beer or two, but I had things to do. Really important things and they really couldn’t wait, or at least that was how I felt.

At that point in time my to-do list was heaving; work to mark, lessons to plan, write a letter of resignation to my current employer (this was certainly something I was postponing until the last minute), organise details for Christmas with family, edit my CV, order my brother a birthday card and arrange a gift, research opportunities using my teaching experience in other career fields, go food shopping, read about if there really is life after teaching, cry a bit and then do some more marking.

I didn’t go for those beers in the end.

A couple of days later after going nearly five days without hitting the gym (something that certainly helps me when it comes to de-stressing), I decided to attend a yoga class. And despite my best intentions I found myself increasingly frustrated as I couldn’t get into it, my mind was elsewhere; on that marking, on the lessons, I still needed to plan for the following day, on the alterations I needed to make to my CV…

I was anywhere but there.

So even when I was trying to take some time out and reflect, my mind was still on how busy things were.

I know that I am not the only one, even in just my social circle friends parrot back to me about how busy their lives are, with work commitments often taking up the lion’s share. But what is exactly making us so busy? When did we allow ourselves to keep going like we are living on a hamster wheel and not take the time to stop for a few moments to think about our next steps?

IT IS TECHNOLOGIES FAULT OR A POOR USER MANUAL?

Technology was meant to make our lives easier, relieving the burden of certain (particularly monotonous or repetitive) tasks and therefore freeing us up to focus on other aspects of a job, or even provide us with more ‘free time.’ However, computers for all their efficiency saving aspects have also created additional work, although I believe that this could be more to do with the use of computers in the workplace than the computers themselves. For example, a part of my role is to record student data. Pretty straightforward. I have my own spreadsheet where I enter student grades for tasks such as homework or assessments. However, I also have to enter this data on not one, but two further spreadsheets for the schools use. The first of which is the whole school data system and the second is for one of the members of management specifically. Why on earth he cannot use the whole school data management system or god forbid my spreadsheet is alien to me. So instead, the entire teaching faculty are expected to enter the same information multiple times.

There is some argument that being busy stems from the complex modern world that we live in. Many of us are connected in some capacity to our work 24/7 through phone and the internet. So even when we are at home or socialising with friends and family, it’s easy to do a ‘quick’ check-in with work. Interestingly this pressure to be present, also runs in parallel to the messages presented to us from various corners of the media that we (as a human race!) are losing grip of the present and so we need to spend time embracing the now, utilising relaxation and meditation practices.

But isn’t this (or me!) missing the point to an extent? Although there are certain findings that highlight people who meditate do find themselves more relaxed, productive and able to focus on the present, it’s often difficult to carve out time to complete the actual practice part. For myself, when I acknowledged my burnout earlier this year, I turned to meditation and downloaded an app for my phone. I lasted about a week and even then I had to keep reminding myself to actually do it via my calendar. Poor discipline on my part? Or could it be more to do with the fact that taking time out to meditate felt like it was at the bottom of that to-do list?

‘IF YOU’RE NOT BUSY, THEN THERE’S A PROBLEM’

This was something my current boss said to me within a few months of starting at my job a few years ago. I am often reminded of his words when I am pulling my hair out over data, weighed down with report writing/editing for my team, or like when I barely have chance to go to the toilet in the working day (note: I am reminded of the quote more than my boss at this time!). At least while passing the time in the bathroom, I can think of those words and remember that being busy has got to be a good thing… right?

In contemporary (Western) society, there is a level of stigma attached to those who are not seen as busy, the words slacker, lazy, unproductive come to mind. Because there is always something that you could be doing. Well, that is according to my boss.

I can only speak for me and my role as a teacher but in my ten-year career, the pressure to be busy has never felt more tangible. Data is followed by more paperwork so we can analyse student performances in examinations, which is then debated at length in meetings with management. Planning and marking are heavily scrutinised so that management can ensure students are progressing sufficiently and that our lessons are up to scratch. And finally, students are plotted on neat graphs to see how they are performing against other students in the school and across the world.

But is there a way to stop or at least even slow the hamster wheel?

Well, it’s something that I am still trying to work out… but I did manage to grab a couple of beers with my friend – only two weeks after first suggesting it.

ARE AWESOME QUALIFICATIONS ESSENTIAL FOR SUCCESS?

One of my biggest hang-ups in my career to date is to do with qualifications and particularly those achieved formally, so through school or university. When I say hang-up I am referring to whether the quality of your qualifications will affect your future prospects.

Okay, so quite obviously I have hit a bump here, for instance, it’s highly unlikely that you would let a doctor anywhere near you if you knew that they didn’t have any qualifications in medicine. However, pieces of paper achieved from completing a course or a degree tells you and (significantly) the world that you are ‘successful’ in X,Y and Z. Qualifications also help build a bridge to where you might want to go, whether that be university or a job, and they perhaps tell us a little bit more about what you might want to be. They provide legitimacy to what you do.

This has become particularly apparent for me at this point in my life where I am re-evaluating my career. I know that I have reached an impasse with teaching and I am looking at what I want to move into next. Teaching has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of skills and experiences and for me now it’s about recognising what these are and refining them for other potential career paths. However, there is a part of me that quickly becomes stuck when I consider the issue of qualifications and particularly my own.

I wasn’t the most focused of students whilst at school, preferring to play sports and hanging out with friends than knuckle down to study. I was also hopeless with revision. I had heaps of notes that I assumed simply through re-reading I would retain the information through a process akin to osmosis, which I would then recall. It turns out, your memory needs a bit of extra help – who would have guessed?

So as results day came around on a sunny day in August when I was 18, rather than celebrating with my friends down at the local pub I was left crying in the school toilets. I was a cliche. I hadn’t completely bombed, but I wasn’t far off.

A whole manner of possible futures presented themselves to me at this point, which mostly swung between repeating my exams the following academic year or taking a year out to travel. However, with little in the form of savings behind me and a resounding ‘No!’ from my parents when I requested a loan, it looked like I was doing the former.

But there was a silver lining. Miraculously my first choice university actually accepted me. Perhaps the rest of my university application was strong enough to counterbalance the poor grades. Whatever the reason/s I am still grateful for whoever was behind this because over the next four years I completed my undergraduate degree and then went to graduate school. With the benefit of years of hindsight, I don’t believe that I would have achieved some of those things, particularly attending graduate school without that (what was to me an) epic fail back in school. It provided me with perhaps one of life’s hardest but best lessons: it’s okay to fail.

I have spent my career training or coercing students (whatever way you want to see it) into preparing for annual examinations, and over the years I have found myself increasingly frustrated and more so despondent at the demands of the seemingly mystical workings of examination boards. Further to this is the pressure placed on young people by the government, the media, parents and educators, including me to achieve those often lofty and possibly unachievable grades for some. Achieving an ‘A’ grade is more important than any possible enjoyment of the content of a subject.

When I hear educators (like my boss) tell students that examinations, particularly those taken between 16-18 years are the most important they will ever do, I genuinely want to scream. And that scream has gotten louder over the years. Opportunities don’t simply dry up and nor is it the end of the world if you do fail. Your path may take a different and possibly unexpected turn but failings don’t define you, they, in fact, become part of you. They make you stronger, more complex and imperfect – which is the best way to be.