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Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer

Exam time. Here we go again, but this time with a difference. I had hoped that the process of teacher assessed grades would prove less stressful than the traditional ‘blitz it in all-in-one-go’ approach, but sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In working with clients presenting with stress of any sort, I have a two-pronged approach. The immediate concern is often to find a fix for the symptoms. If you’re feeling your heart racing, your stomach churning, your palms sweaty, tension in your arms, torso and neck – we all have our own ‘stress signature’ but these are typical signals – what do you actually do? Our stress signature indicates that we’ve gone deep into the emotional or mammalian brain and are reacting with a fight/flight/freeze response. We are perceiving the exam (or whatever the source of stress is) as a threat and are responding accordingly. As the brain and body are intimately connected at all times, we need to look at ways to calm the body, so that the brain is not agitated, and ways to calm the brain, so that the body shuts down the stress response.

Of the two, calming the body tends to be easier than calming the brain. Why? Because the thinking that is obsessing the brain is invariably deep-rooted, habitual and therefore very difficult to shift. It tends to go something like this:

  • These exams will affect the rest of my life
  • Therefore, if I do badly, it will be a disaster
  • I will be letting my parents/my family/my teachers/myself down
  • I will look like I haven’t tried
  • My parents have worked hard to pay my fees and though they say they only want me to be happy, I know that really, they want me to get great grades
  • Great grades are more than 90%/80%/70% (delete as applicable) and I must get them across all subjects
  • I am doing my revision but it probably isn’t enough and I’m not sure it’s working anyway

Just imagine thinking those thoughts, day in day out, for years and years. They kick in as early as year 7. By year 11, they are thoroughly entrenched. I often feel like a voice crying in the wilderness when asked if it’s possible to think about exams/education in a different way. How happy I would be if all our boys had some of these deep-rooted and habitual beliefs instead!

  • However, I do in these exams, I have the capacity to enjoy life and make the most of it.
  • If I do less well than I had hoped, I can learn from the experience. I can learn humility, empathy for others who experience difficulty and that life is always uncertain, no matter what we do.
  • If others choose to be disappointed in me, that is their choice. I can choose to be proud of my efforts when I know they are genuine, whatever the results.
  • I choose not to judge myself by others’ opinions but by how I see myself.
  • My parents chose my school because of many factors, not simply the hope that I would get good grades. They can be well-spent on a great education, regardless of my grades, if I choose to make it so.
  • Choosing to tell myself that I MUST hit a very narrow target is inevitably going to be stressful. I choose to broaden my target and to accept that humans are stronger in some areas than other.
  • Revision could be endless. I choose to do a reasonable amount in ways that I have found to be effective and to continue to live a balanced life that includes plenty of sleep, leisure and exercise.

In summary, I choose to be educated because I am interested and curious – if I get some useful grades, that will be a bonus!

That’s my dream! Anything you can do to share my dream will, I am convinced, be of benefit to our boys’ well-being and mental health.

A final thought from the great politician, Nancy Astor.

Meg Harper, Head of Counselling