Like nobody’s watching

Glorious sunshine is finally upon us and the temperature is going up, so it must be exam time. Some of my most distinct memories from both my A levels and my degree finals are of my hand sliding down my pen and sticking to the exam paper as I wrote line after line in a heatwave. Some things never change.

Bizarrely, I have mainly positive memories of written exams. You might think that this is easy to say for someone who has been reasonably successful educationally, but I should make it clear that I did not have the easiest of rides in all subjects. Mathematics in particular was a real struggle for me and – classified at school as academically strong – it took me some time and a lot of failure to convince the school that I should be placed in the bottom set. This was the only way I would be allowed to sit the Foundation paper and it paid off – I got the Grade C that I needed for the door to further education to remain open for me. But it was a struggle. Not every subject came easily to me and I was not always someone who excelled.

Despite my chequered history across the full gamut of academic subjects, I learnt to enjoy written exams. Some of my students look at me in genuine disbelief when I say this, but it’s true. The thing is, written exams are distinctly different from a performance, something else which I had felt (and put myself) under enormous pressure to do. While concerts and musical examinations made me quite literally sick with fear and my overwhelming memory of those experiences is unremittingly negative, my response to written exams felt quite different. For me, a written exam was an intensely private experience. No one is watching. It’s just you and the paper. As you write, nobody knows how well or badly it’s going. You could be writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a thousand times over, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and nobody would know. On the other hand, you could be producing sheer genius. Who can tell?

The anonymity of written examinations freed me up to perform and I am aware that this is a preference that has affected many aspects of my life: I am not keen on public performance and the older I get the harder it has become. This might seem to some extraordinary for a classroom teacher to say, but there are many teacher introverts and you’d be surprised how forgiving a classroom of teenagers can be, not least because they are usually far more worried about their own insecurities to pick yours apart. Standing at the front of a classroom feels completely different from standing in front of any other kind of audience, particularly one that is there explicitly to criticise. OfSted was not much fun for precisely this reason, although I believe I handled the process better than most. The reality is that I had no choice. Every job has its downsides.

As I maintain my (so far) regular and increasingly habitual twice-weekly visits to the gym, I am struck by the members who are there to perform to others. Most notable is the girl who films herself on her mobile phone. Dressed in tightly-clad lycra, she records her performance of deadlifts and uploads them to social media. It seems a desperately sad way to live, even if she’s making money as an influencer: for me, the pay-off of being judged 24 hours a day would not be worth the money and certainly the reports we already have from ex-influencers are testament to the detrimental effect that this kind of lifestyle has on their mental health. Being under intense scrutiny is remarkably stressful; making one’s income depend upon this must be doubly so.

Having just finished Jonathan Haidt’s Anxious Generation, I have been thinking a lot about Gen Z and the fact that they have grown up under scrutiny. No generation before has experienced the combination of our modern obsession with constant adult supervision to “keep children safe” combined with a quite horrifying lack of gate-keeping online that has opened the door on their lives to the world. Even prior to Haidt’s research I had found myself pondering that the generation which has grown up with the world in their pocket seems to feel the weight of that world more than any other generation has done so, despite the fact that their world is in fact a safer and healthier place than it has ever been for previous generations. Something has gone horribly wrong that this generation feels so bad. The world should be their oyster.

None of us wants to be the one to say it’s the smart phones, as none of us wants to be the pearl-clutching old fuddy-duddy that blames the colour TV or the latest computer game for all the ills in the world. But I don’t think it extreme to say that having the eyes of one’s peers and indeed the eyes of the entire world upon one 24-hours a day is not good for the soul and that equipping children with a device that makes this inevitable was an emphatically, catastrophically bad idea. Children (and indeed adults) need time out, time unsupervised, time unjudged to make mistakes and to mess up, without the whole process being recorded and played back on a loop until the day they die. I don’t know a single member of my generation that isn’t thankful they did not grow up with this and that we did not have our thoughts, ideas, fashion choices and beliefs held to account and digitally recorded to haunt us forever.

If I could gift the next generation with one thing it would be the right to dance like nobody’s watching. I fear we may have robbed them of this privilege we all took for granted a long time ago.

Photo by Adrian Diaz-Sieckel on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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