I have busied myself over the last week to prevent myself from checking my phone too often to see if there are any new messages from my sister. I read somewhere that it takes six weeks to break an old habit, but I am starting to think that this particular sister detox may take much longer to master. I need some new rules.
Thank goodness then for the timely arrival of A Level and GCSE results which will form a useful distraction from any temptation I have to howl at the moon – unless this week’s results are terrible, of course.
I think I may have dropped into recent blogs that I have just returned from another school trip to Kenya (#morethanoncesurelynot?). Ask any of my students and they will tell you that Miss has a tendency to wax lyrical about anything Kenyan, that my assemblies always veer towards an African theme, and that presents from Year 13 leavers (I haven’t declared these to the tax man) inevitably include a Kenyan flag, Swahili phrase book, or topical t-shirt (keep these presents rolling in students, there is no room on my desk for chocolates or flowers). Anyway, getting to the point of this Kenyan tangent, on this latest trip I notice just how differently Kenyan students approach exams.
On one occasion the girls from Rigoma High come to walk us to their boarding school; they do this to highlight the delights of the rural landscape on the two hour walk and to get to know us on a one-to-one basis. I walk besides Martha who tells me that she will be starting her exams the next day. As well as supporting Chelsea football team, it transpires that Martha has set her sights on becoming a lawyer. I apologise for the distraction our visit is causing; she just laughs, saying that yesterday she found out that her exams have been delayed by a day for our arrival. She can’t understand when I apologise for the inconvenience we are causing. “We welcome this opportunity to interact,’ she tells me, ‘it can only improve our final grades’. ‘Are you nervous about the exams?’ I ask as she patiently allows me yet another water break. ‘Nervous? Why would I be?’ she laughs, ‘No, I’m excited. The exams will give me a chance to show my parents how well I am doing.’ I am liking this confidence; it is infectious.
I am struck by the difference of my own students as they prepared for their exams earlier this summer. This exam season seemed especially intense, and as ever, I was in awe of the way in which students battled with physical and mental health – not to mention their own high expectations – just to make it into the exam room. Some intense exam scheduling ensured that some students needed to sit three exams back to back and be quarantined in between – even overnight in some cases. As I talk to Martha, I wonder what our students – or the local papers – would make of a last minute decision, taken on a whim, to delay or fast-forward an exam. I wonder how student confidence would hold up. I wonder how hot the office phone line would be.
I am also struck by the differences in study environment. Martha’s friend Pamela asks to see what our school looks like. She is baffled by my photos of our library and study centre, so I ask her where she revises. ‘Outside on the grass or in my dorm,’ she replies and duly shows me the bunk bed she occupies in a room with 20 other girls. No desks, not much light; high aspirations and study apparently starts at 5 am.
I ask Pamela how well prepared she is for her exams. ‘Totally prepared,’ she says, ‘I couldn’t be more prepared’. As we walk around the school I see little blackboards and paper notices outside every classroom door, all with useful nuggets of information to help in the forthcoming exams. No opportunity for learning is missed. I think we may be missing a trick here.
In the classroom I am struck by the eagerness of the Kenyan students. So enthusiastic are they to be selected to answer a question that they click their fingers to draw the attention of their teacher; they even applaud good answers from their peers. In contrast, I remember once teaching at a school where the Headteacher was met with derision from teachers and a withering response from students when he tried to initiate an ‘it’s cool to be keen’ approach to education. Turns out, sadly, it is not so ‘cool’ in the UK.
Returning to our campsite, I sit reflecting with some of our students. One of them comments on teenage personal space – or lack of it – in the schools and villages we have visited on this trip. ‘I can’t work out if having nowhere to run to i.e my bedroom, would help me get over myself or just do my head in,’ he says. ‘When I am in my room, I allow myself – and sometimes my mother – the impression that I am clocking up a lot of revision hours but perhaps my personal access to ‘Game of Thrones’ and Spotify may be counter-productive’. He duly plugs in his headphones and walks towards his tent, telling his fellow campers that he needs, ‘some time alone to think and does not want to be disturbed’.
I sit pondering – again – how in education we might be able to bottle exam stress and remarket it as excitement and confidence. I wonder what the A Level results will look like this year. I enjoy the distraction of this ponder knowing that there is no wifi signal on the campsite and that I can’t check my phone for messages. It is a brief interlude, for soon I am interrupted by a group of students who want me to join in their game of cards. My sister loved playing cards and I feel a little pang, but the students want to play Uno and Sis hated that game. I know from bitter experience that my fellow campers will make the rules up as we go. Students eh? Thankfully they always want to push the boundaries.