Comfortably uncomfortable

My week has comprised a conference for sports and business leaders, a Year 13 Parent Evening and a 20 mile road race, so I feel justified when I congratulate myself on pushing my dragonfly boundaries into the comfortably uncomfortable.  It’s not all positive though; so varied was each event that the aftermath has been nocturnal brain rattling and the subsequent gifting of some seriously heavy luggage below my eyes.

It is thanks to the politeness of one of my students, that I am allowed to be his chaperone when he is offered a delegate’s place at a conference discussing high performance in sport and business.  Although a shy lad, the student immediately makes himself at home in a room full of adults and enthusiastically takes a place in the front row.  Surplus to requirements and feeling a little shy, I sit in the back row – wedged between two Hagrid-sized rugby players; I adopt what I like to think of as my,  ‘I spend all my time in sports stadiums pose’.  I also surreptitiously take a photo of the delegate list and send it to FS in the hope of some intel about who I’m actually sitting next to.  I’m anxious not to disgrace myself over lunch.

Listening to the elite from the world of sport – performers and coaches –  I am struck by the similarity between their world of high performance and the stadium moment in education that the final exam hall creates for A’ Level and GCSE students. Sadly, the difference seems to be in the response.  While sportsmen and women are trained to rechannel flight into fight, I fear many of my students are exhibiting a preoccupation with flightiness.  So convinced were some of them that all their teachers hate them and that they are inevitably heading towards failure in their summer exams,  I have been performing sporting heroics myself all week just to get them to attend that parents’ evening I mentioned.

Back at school, I’ve also been doing that irritating teacher thing of using all the great motivational phrases I heard at the conference.  ‘A wall is not there to keep you out, James; it is there to show how great your desire is to smash through it’, or, ‘ if we never make mistakes, we are never stepping beyond the edge of risk.’  I have one student who orders the same slice of pizza from the canteen every lunchtime – and has done so for the last two years, so I realise that sharing the last nugget (albeit without chicken), is probably a waste of time for both of us.

All the best advice seems to be that we need to create opportunities for our students to experience how they react when things aren’t going right, so that when they inhabit their ‘big stadium’ exam experience, they know how to respond.  One of those conference speakers told me that he believes coaches should leave the sports stadium when ‘their’ athletes are performing on the track.  ‘It’s too easy for them to pop over and get advice when a jump falls short, for example,’ he said, ‘ when in fact, they need to trust the advice they would give themselves’.

I can’t see this going down well in a school situation but realise, in fact, that we already work like this in schools in the big moments – after all, a student can’t put their hand up in the exam hall and ask an invigilator for help with a tricky biochemistry question or to furnish them with a few quotes from ‘Othello’. Leading up to the exams, however,  we are perhaps too present.   We may have some work to do before students can accept a,  ‘No, Miss isn’t in school today, she said you’d know what to do as the exam is next week’.

Exhausted though I am by this week, I feel my inner dragonfly relieved that I’ve been agitating  some grey matter.  The dragonfly isn’t feeling quite so perky this morning  when the alarm goes off at Silly ‘O’Clock to herald the dawn of that 20 mile road race I’d entered in prep for my London dalliance later next month.  I realise that sometimes I prefer to be the coach rather than the athlete.

Storm Gareth is doing his best and seems to have been up all night building a wall to test how much I want to smash through his wind tunnel and complete the 20 mile course.  I remind myself that, ‘discomfort will propel me to achieve my goals’ (great value that sports conference, I must say).  More importantly, as I look around the village hall in which the race starts, I’m reassured how normal the other runners all look and how nervous and giggly we all sound. I decide to, ‘use the energy of the other runners to harness my goals’ (another top tip from Monday); it looks like we have a good crowd – even better, there is a huge urn of tea and coffee (don’t tell mum) and a pile of cakes awaiting our return.  I love the optimism of the organisers that we will all be coming back. Although we were advised at the conference not to create an environment of distraction, to be honest, I am lost as soon as I see the chocolate muffin mountain. Village hall, small stadium, who cares?  It’s another valuable training day and I prise myself off the coaching bench.

Fast forward and course complete (three hours, thank you for asking),  I now have another rich seam of teacher stories for future school assemblies.  Once more the running metaphors will spill out of me; once more I can explain the vital role of jelly babies in the completion of any endurance activity and once more I can eulogise about the importance of the other people in the race/class/exam hall – delete as applicable.

My thinking is that every student needs the equivalent of that little lad who stood at the top of a hill this morning  – in 36 mph wind – handing out fruit pastilles and cola bottle sours to flagging runners (he didn’t get the memo about jelly babies, but he may be on to something in the sports nutrition market). Every student needs someone who cheers you on to the finish line, even though you’ve started weaving across the path and have cramp in your feet. Every student needs the offer of tea, coffee – hot chocolate even – and a nice fat cake as a reward for enduring weeks and weeks of training. Most of all, we all need praise for clearing hurdles and endurance events (told you, this sporting semantic field will run and run).

On reflection, in the event, Year 13 were all marshalled smoothly through Parent Evening.  With a few tears and team talks in the stadium, there is a now even a strong likelihood that we may also have some students who are believing they can achieve some Personal Bests this summer.  It’s a comfort that their teachers didn’t leave the arena early after all – I’d have felt uncomfortable if we’d removed all support vehicles at this stage in the race.

I’m sure I’ll get a brain rattle in the middle of the night and come up with an assembly or two to support students’ pre-exam training.  I know they will love this.  I’m thinking along the lines of, ‘What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ for I’ve got all of the slides from this presentation at the conference.   In my dreams though,  I just hope I’m not talking to an empty stadium.  Thanks to my insomina, at least I’ll have some bags to pack if I need to make a quick getaway.




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