30 January 2023

The Monday Briefing: Under Pressure

The Monday Briefing: Under Preassure

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.”

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Part of the role of any teacher is constant interaction with students on a daily basis. Through each interaction, one gets to know the young people in their care more and more. Building strong relationships is perhaps the fundamental part in ensuring successful teaching and learning takes place. A few weeks ago, I quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s perceptive comment about trusting relationships: “no one cares what you know until they know that you care.”

Of course, during these relationships, where teachers teach and students learn, there must always be some kind of reckoning. That may be performance in class, in homework tasks or in assessments. However that judgement on progress is made, some form of pressure comes with it: to perform up to expectations whilst not letting the teacher, and themselves, down.

How students respond to this pressure varies significantly across students at the College, as it does in any school. An imperative aspect of it which must be understood is that the pressure will not change, or go away, until the task is conquered. Only when it is conquered, then character grows. This is why we set extra-school sessions based exclusively on whether work remains outstanding or not. Not whether deadlines were missed or whether target grades were not met; simply that responsibilities, for each student, must be taken care of. 

Our best students understand this imperative. They see, without any issue, the point in consistent hard work leading to progress. They comprehend the bigger picture. They know the game they are playing, know what success looks like, and strive to make it happen. They make the very best of the assistance on offer.

Not all students understand this fundamental aspect though. Those who don’t tend to find comfort in an ever-present ally: the excuse.

The excuse can come in very early for some students - it justifies failure before one has really risked anything. ‘If I don’t try then I’ll never really fail.’ This brings, to a certain extent, (in their minds at least) a pressure free life.

I’ve taken great pleasure in watching the development of a Year 10 girl move past this particular obstacle this academic year. Before she came to the College, she simply did not feel that education could work for her. Now her self-esteem, which was on the floor before her time at EIC, has foundations based in enjoying success, she is moving in the right direction. Still some wobbles, but getting there. And her main trump card (though she might not agree): a parent who supports what the College is trying to do wholeheartedly and accepts no excuses. 

The next obstacle to negotiate for students is often the first tricky phase of development - something like a looming deadline or an upcoming test. Here the excuses often forthcoming tend to revolve around illness or other obligations. ‘I can’t do that - I’m ill.’ ‘I got no sleep last night so I can’t possibly do it.’ ‘I have to be somewhere - you can ask my mother/father/brother/second cousin.’ Where this hits worst is where parents enable such a lack of application by supporting their sons or daughters with these excuses. I have yet to understand what they are teaching their children by supporting this lack of confrontation of the issues which need to be tackled to move forward. It often takes quite a lot of ‘undoing’ for this to change in terms of remedial help. Parental meetings to establish trust, and a shared approach is aimed for - but this isn’t always forthcoming to a satisfactory level. 

I dealt with a student last week who had lied to a member of staff about the need to leave a lesson. When the truth was revealed, they were punished by having to attend three lunchtime detentions with me. Day One wasn’t an issue - though I had to find the student because they ‘did not know where to come’. Day Two saw some wriggling - ‘I have a headache. I need some painkillers. My mum wants me to go home.’ Of course, this was all subterfuge - and I don’t easily fall for any of it. He attended the set detention. Day Three - he was off ill - his mother called, supplying the excuse. Clearly still some work to do with him, but he will most definitely be sitting the final day of his detention the next day he is in. Anything else would undermine the entire punishment - and lesson to be learned.

Of course, these students at least understand the concept of pressure, and then try to work their way around it through avoidance. There are some students who simply adopt an approach bordering on ignorance. These are the ones I call the ‘I’ll perform when we get to the actual exam’ type of student. They do not seem to see that being stuck in a rut of rather underwhelming performance is rather difficult to break free from - but they continue to kid themselves into thinking that they are right and the experts who guide them are wrong. It is in finding the errors and areas for improvement in regular, formative assessment where one makes the most progress in summative assessment. These are the infuriating students who tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, and never emerge beyond their supposed potential levels because they are so set in their ways. They believe that the ultimate pressure of the exams is their best friend as it will bring out the very best in their unprepared selves. Their approach is, of course, entirely limiting - of themselves.

Every week, I have to go through the rigmarole of reminding GCSE Intensive students - most of whom have underperformed the year before - that every homework assignment really counts. They provide chances to showcase improvement, to put oneself under pressure to perform, to walk the walk as opposed to simply talking the talk. One student in particular just can’t seem to get his head around this proposition, forever leaving work until the night before despite being given extensive guidance a week from deadline, in the end submitting it in a rush and, in keeping with all previous weeks’ work, a poor reflection of his actual potential. He’ll be doomed to repeat history without some kind of change, but the fact of the matter is that he has already limited his chances of maximising his improvement.

“Under pressure that brings a building down, Splits a family in two, puts people on streets”

Queen, Under Pressure

In amongst these daily interactions and conversations with students, are interspersed reflective discussions with staff. I have a fairly common one with Maria, the Student Liaison Officer in charge of attendance. Her insight is particularly valuable given her propensity for having heard almost every excuse for non-attendance conceivable. The dialogue starts with a quite an open question: “which of the students would you have with you in the trenches?”

We talk through several examples of students up and down the year groups who accept their responsibilities at the College, and, when the pressure is on, show the necessary grit and determination required to overcome it successfully. We then ruminate about those students who employ the characteristics of avoidance set out above.

At this point, it’s important to consider different levels of pressure. Whilst we bemoan the fact that certain students can’t cope with the stress of having an assignment or test due, it is a great deal more important to consider those within the student body - and we have three such students - who are with us from Ukraine. The pressure which they have to live with on a daily basis surely pales in comparison to that which we deal with. 

And yet the range of reactions to this amongst them is little different to the rest of our student body. One of them lies somewhere between attitude one and attitude two above: either they give the impression that they care little about learning, or find ways to avoid being held to account over it; another is a complex individual who seems to lurch between all three; and then the other is a model student - keen, dedicated, committed, receptive to feedback. 

She sees pressure as something to overcome rather than something to avoid - and she is an inspiration to the entire student population.

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