One of the great things about being a teacher is the paperwork. Everything has to be documented. Every piece of work should be carefully covered in red scribble and returned to the student, for them to scrunch it up and stick it in the bottom of their bag. We need to write lesson plans and unit outlines and day-to-day summaries and meeting minutes and assignment sheets…
… and exams.
We have exams for all core subjects in Years 7-10 at our school. Twice a year, for one week and at least six subjects, the students traipse into the hall or the auditorium and sit in neat little rows with papers in front of them and write or doodle for two hours. We supervise them, wandering up and down the aisles, answering questions (“When it says ‘write your name here’ does that mean my full name, or just my first name?”) and handing out tissues.
Oh gods, the sniffing! It’s like a convention of cocaine addicts sitting in a hall. All is silent except for the rustling of paper and then a symphony of sniffs. Sometimes you can tell it’s deliberate. There’s a pattern. The ringleader will give a hearty snort, followed by the gleeful snuffles of his underlings. But mostly it’s just the disgusting habits of teenagers in a world where handkerchiefs are no longer a required item.
It isn’t my place to debate the usefulness of exams. Well, it is, but it is more than my job is worth to do so. But they are very stressful, both for teachers and students. And I don’t even teach VCE (for the overseas readers: the Victorian Certificate of Education is the endgame for high school education in Victoria – Years 11 and 12). So many times I want to grab a kid and say “You’re only in Year 7! It’s not that big a deal!” But it’s probably a good thing that they have four years of learning that you don’t talk in exams and, No, you cannot go and get a drink you doofus!
Speaking of stress, my favourite (?) story from my own VCE exam days might very well be an urban myth, but it freaked us out at the time. I was going into a Literature exam, when one of the other students told us this:
“So this girl was really unprepared for her Psych exam. And on the day she came into the exam, really calm. She sat down, got all her stuff out, and waited for the exam to start. She opened her exam paper, stared at it for a few minutes, and then, very calmly, picked up two pencils, inserted one in each nostril, sharp side up, and then, without warning, slammed her head down on the table. She was dead instantly!”
This, just before we went into an exam. And exams at that point meant everything. They were our entry into university. They were a status symbol. They took over every part of our lives for those final weeks of school. And they were unbelievably stressful.
But I can’t imagine being overly worried about them in Year 10. I don’t even think I was overly traumatised by them in Year 12, although that story didn’t help. I know I was, but that sense of terror isn’t lodged in my brain the way dealing with bullies and everyday school life is. I remember clearly a slick, feral kid promising he’d push my head through a wall as soon as the teacher wasn’t watching. I don’t remember sleepless nights awaiting exams in highschool.
By university, exams had taken on a malevolent evil force that allowed them to get under my skin and bring me to breaking point. Or maybe it was the booze and late nights that did that. But suddenly, exams meant something. Friends would come to my room in tears, sure that they were going to fail miserably. We would do week-long cram sessions. We would stay up all night before an exam, trying to get one tiny piece of information to stick. We would eat mountains of doughnuts and experiment to see whether studying drunk was better than studying sober. Nothing helped.
I hate exams. They aren’t a fantastic example of learning. They are a fantastic example of a certain type of student’s learning. But until universities realise that, we’re stuck with it.
And so the symphony of sniffing will continue.