TAKING THE TIME TO LISTEN

It is Friday afternoon and lessons for the week have just finished; students are heading home along with some of my colleagues. I don’t like to hang around too late on a Friday either, but I have set of test papers to mark that I would prefer to do from the relative comforts of a quiet classroom rather than in the real comforts of home. Besides, I have already allocated some of my Sunday to prepping for the following week, the test papers would just add to that load.

Then my door opens.

It is a colleague whose classroom is adjacent to mine coming in for a chat. But when I say ‘chat’ as that would presume that that there were two people involved in the conversation, it’s more like being spoken at about his day.

I put my pen and the exam paper down and listen to his frustrations; the students who haven’t quite registered that their final exams are in a few months time, the ones who have failed to hand in homework, and the ones who promised that they would turn up for the revision classes but didn’t. I listen and attempt to offer support and advice where I can, we are colleagues and part of the same team. I am also the Head of Department.

After he has left, I settle back into marking the papers. It’s a significant pile and I really don’t want to have to take them all home this weekend. Last weekend was spent proof-reading student subject reports for the department, I could barely see straight after I had finished.

Then my door opens.

It’s another member of the team, she’s relatively new and still working her way around the school and its quirks. I try to give her as much time as I can as I have heard on the teacher grapevine that she has already thrown around some flippant remarks about leaving before the end of the academic year due to the ‘unreasonable workload’. Much like a few minutes before, I am blasted with information and updates on her day. I sit and listen patiently with a set smile on my face, but in the back of my mind I am thinking about those unmarked test papers, about the data that it will then probably take another 30 minutes or so to input onto the school system, the emails I need to reply to, and the fact that I haven’t had chance all day to go the office to photocopy my resources for Monday.

After she leaves something strikes me as I am trying to get my head back into marking mode, I very rarely get asked about how I am by members of the team. Perhaps they think that I am fine because of the persona that I carry off (very successfully, if I say so myself) day to day. None of them is aware of the challenges I sometimes have just to get up in a morning and get to work, but then, why should they need to know? Or perhaps the reason I don’t get asked is because I am a member of management and there is a ‘them and us’ mindset to it. Sometimes people just need to vent and I do feel that part of my role is to cushion some of the blows or at least act as a sponge.

In this time-pressed profession, I would love to sit down and have more conversations with my team and other colleagues, perhaps about things going outside of the classroom and outside of the school. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, particularly as exam season approaches.

I admit my management style may have contributed towards this situation. Despite the seemingly constant curriculum changes and ever evolving school diktats, I try to manage with a democratic approach inasmuch as I can; concerns are discussed openly in meetings and if an issue affects someone directly, I will do my best to help. They are an amazingly hard-working bunch whose support I value every single day.

But it would be nice sometimes for one of them to ask how I am and pause for an answer.

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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.