This upcoming week is exam week at my school. Since I teach in an independent girls school, we set our own guidelines for exams, which means that our end of the semester exams are worth between 25-33% of a student’s semester grade. (Each department sets the exact percentage that it deems suitable). So, as you can imagine, this week is pretty stressful for most of our students, and especially for mine, because as ninth graders, they are going through this experience for the first time. Hardly an exam week goes by without me having to put out a few fires as students are sleep deprived and on edge.
As a consequence, during this time of year, I often reflect on the importance of compassion and empathy. The vast majority of our students are high achieving and ambitious, and they place an enormous amount of pressure on themselves during this time of the year. Most end up doing very well on their exams, but there are always a few who do not. These students are the ones that concern me. Failure is never easy, and though we preach to them that failure is sometimes necessary, that argument rings pretty hollow to a student who just lowered her semester grade because of a bad exam. She does not want to hear how this experience will make her stronger and better prepared for real life. She wants a better grade.
So, what do we do? I do not have a good answer to this question, but I believe that compassion and empathy can make a difference here. Do teach the student the lesson about how failure can make her stronger, but perhaps more importantly, tell her that this exam will not define her. Tell her that you still believe in her, and that despite the poor exam result, there is still value in what she is bringing to your class. Tell her that she should be proud of all the work she has done this semester, and that you will help her prepare for the next exam to ensure a better result. Tell her that you still view her the same way as before the exam. And perhaps most importantly, tell her she matters to you, her peers, and her school.
Exam week is a time for us teachers to show empathy and to let students know that they still matter, despite the occasional mishap. If they stumble, teach them how to prepare better for the next major assessment, but above all, tell them you still have faith in them. Many will still struggle to handle the reactions from peers and family, but if you let them know you are still in their corner, it might just make a difference. Be an advocate for them. Let them know you care. It will make a difference.