The exam season approaches again – far too fast, as having been away from school for so much of the spring term, I am horribly behind on matters such as sorting exam seating and organising invigilation.
Indeed, it’s already started – the A-level French orals started on Friday, and the EMPAs (written part of the A-level science practical assessments) are in progress too. But we’ve got another week until we get to the big halls full of desks and sweating students. School exams are at around the same time, too, so in the week before half term, the whole place should hopefully be silent (well, until they burst out after finishing an exam and we have to shepherd them away to stop them disturbing everyone else, that is).
There’s always a lot of talk about how stressful life is, people suffering from stress etc – and it certainly feels like there’s a lot of stress around at this time of year. Some of the kids talk about how stressed they are, some of them don’t say, but show it in their every look or movement, and others seem comparatively unaffected.
We often talk about stress as if it’s unequivocally a bad thing, and there’s no doubt for some it is horribly destructive. Realistically speaking, however, surely some stress is inevitable, and the issue is how we respond. When I was at school, I was by no means a model pupil, and up to O-level, I only started revising when the stress started to set in – but that worked really rather well for me, as it gave me an additional edge and focus that allowed me to take information in rapidly and concentrate for long periods. I see kids very much like that now, for whom stress is actually a friend, and plenty of adults work like that, using deadlines to focus them.
Then you get people who get so stressed that they can’t think straight – have experience of trying to calm down kids who react like that, but it does worry me if they are going on to a highly pressured degree course and career (such as medicine), as so many of this type are. You also get those who never get the stress levels “right”, like the son of a friend of mine, who appears to go from not stressed at all about his work (so he doesn’t do it) to hugely stressed (so he doesn’t feel he’ll be able to do it at all and it’s not worth trying).
Some lucky(?) souls are apparently immune to stress . In some cases that’s because they are impeccably organised and know they have done everything they could to prepare, whilst in others it’s that they just aren’t that bothered. I’m not sure it really is that fortunate though. I guess really not minding very much whether you get an B or a C in an exam – or whether you get that job or not – is good in many respects, and is probably a recipe for a contented life, but I personally find it a bit hard to comprehend. And whilst these days, I am a more conscientious person – I prepare pretty thoroughly for my OU exams – I still benefit from that slight adrenalin “edge” when actually sitting them that puts my mind in hyperdrive and enables me to write at supersonic speeds – I wouldn’t want that removed!
What can we do about it? I think I was born lucky in that stress for me has almost always been constructive (I used to call it “the art of constructive panic” when I was at school). But increasingly I see the destructive version – kids both shattered and shaking with nerves before going into an exam, having been unable to sleep the previous night, or on a more superficial level, younger kids (year 8 or 9) working each other up into a state about their school exams which actually impedes their work towards them. Now I don’t think “modern life is more stressful” as some do. When I’ve talked to older people, I’ve thought my own life was a good site less stressful than theirs, thank you very much, and I don’t think kids today have more stressors in their lives than did my peers and I (different ones, yes).
I suspect this is going back to the problem of the lack of experience of failure, and of working through it – things going wrong becomes so absolutely terrifying that paralysis sets in. It may have something to do with not feeling in control as well – if you can do something constructive to prepare for a difficult event, then for me that makes it easier. But I am not sure if that works for everyone – perhaps sometimes the fact that you can do something may make it even tougher? I suspect the urge to continually communicate feelings may be making it worse as well – I’m not one of those people who shun social media, but I do feel that the continual tweets or status updates can promote group hysteria (not to mention reducing the opportunity to actually do something useful).
So what can we do? I don’t know. But I think it’s something we need to address – not by a doomed attempt to remove stress, or to pretend things don’t matter, but by helping kids (and hence hopefully the adults they become) manage their own responses better. Yet another one of those useful things schools could do that isn’t examinable…