A letter to my students, on the eve of their exam results

I wish I could tell you the shakiness goes away, but if it’s there the first time, it will likely continue to be. You live in the era of receiving your results digitally — frantically clicking ‘refresh’, hands shaking, eyes going fuzzy the moment the page loads, frantically scanning the page for the little bits that you think will make or break your future. Will your heart, lodged in your throat, soar or sink?

Those characters might have a lot riding on them. Perhaps your family’s hopes, your future plans, or even — “only” — your sense of self-worth. You might pretend that they’re no big deal, but are you also there at midnight, refreshing that page, secretly hoping against or for, what?

I’ve lost count of the exams I have taken, the assignments I have submitted, the results I have waited for. But I can tell you something that you taught me, this past year — that the real results are not the characters that show up on a screen but the ones who show up in your life, if you’re doing it right.

Because you turned up, I know I did ok.

How you feel today is how I felt this time, last year, as I waited for the bell before your first class. I already knew your faces, because I’d downloaded your class list on KAMAR and I’d been reciting your names, hoping I’d prove to you that I cared enough to get to know you (also terrified I’d say your name wrong). And even after that first class — even after you’d left, and I’d let out a huge sigh of relief at having survived it — I felt that “exam result anxiety” for the whole of the first term.

Being a teacher is kind of like taking an exam, perpetually, but you don’t know whether you’ve passed until the end of the year… and even then, some ‘results’, some of your impacts won’t be seen for years, or decades. Yeah, you get some indications along the way… a conversation here, some built trust there, some clear wins and losses — but you don’t really know. There’s always something you can do better, and if you really care, you really want to. I wanted to, every day.

As an ‘overachiever’ (I don’t like that term, but I haven’t found a better one), taking a perpetual exam is tough. The perfectionism begins to lose its edges. On the good days, you take stock of the wins, and on the bad days, you can easily forget them.

But, every day (well — mostly), you were there. You turned up for me. You shared with me your grace, your humour, your fun, kindness, honesty, COMPLETE lack of filter, subtle roasts, eye-rolls, and your willingness to try and try again… particularly where I was concerned, because I know I asked of you a great deal. And I also made mistakes — and you were gentle about them (though, of course, honest and quick to point some of them out — for which I’m grateful, because it kept me humble).

I know I was a hard teacher, and I was — am — unapologetic about it. But you listened, and you took my words with the loving-kindness they were intended. You were patient with my tangents (and when I tried to explain, ad nauseum, why I was trying to teach something); you at least tried to laugh at my terrible, terrible jokes. You all showed me your astounding talents and intelligence and creativity, and completely lit up my world (Even if your talents and intelligence and creativity were being used for purposes… other than I’d perhaps have encouraged). You celebrated my triumphs with me and stayed behind class to share memes with me during hard times. You turned a lot of my expectations upside-down, in the best of ways — and showed me completely new ways of doing, thinking, feeling, and being about things.

You were forgiving when I had really horrible days. I know I said it, and you probably didn’t think anything more of it, but I lost count of the times I could find no other reason to come into work — facing toxic behaviours from colleagues, unsustainable workloads, bills I was struggling to pay on my newly cut salary, emotional and mental exhaustion — than the fact that I knew you would all remind me of the hope and purpose behind this journey I chose to take and continue to choose, thanks to you.

And I know I said a bunch of times, “academic results aren’t everything”, and I know that might sound empty coming from someone who also shares how important an A+ is to them. The reason I say that — that the grades really aren’t everything — is because I’ve come to learn that as proud as I am of the GPA I’ve accumulated and the work I poured into that, my life has been far more enriched by the things you can’t put down on a transcript. And the grades only really started getting into line for me once I’d sorted that other stuff out, and found something I really believed in. Including believing in me.

I’m scared, too. Your results are also a reflection on me. Did I teach you enough? The right stuff? Did I push you too hard? Did I miss anything out? Was I too vague, were my lessons too boring? I want you to succeed (this, if anything, is my core purpose for doing what I am doing), and even though I know your learning is so much more than grades on a page, it doesn’t mean I don’t also care about those — because you might care, and you might be affected by them. For that reason, and not because my superiors tell me I should.

After all, at the end of the day, I’m not here for them — I’m here for you.

In your anonymous end-of-year surveys, you told me you’d made friends in my classes; that you’d all found at least one module of work ‘fascinating’; that you felt you’d learned something important this year in my class, even if it wasn’t anything to do with our subject or your exams. Over 90% of you, across all classes, reported that.

I don’t need to check NZQA tomorrow to know this — As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got all the results you need. Every one of you is a whole human being who has shown me how uniquely wonderful you are over the course of this year. You have learned, whether you believe it or not, whether your records reflect it or not — you have grown and evolved and you’re still here, reading this. I’ve watched you learn to write better, read better, search better, ask better. I’ve seen you make friends in my classes, and make colleagues out of peers you’d normally never speak to. I’ve clapped until my hands were swollen and yelled until I went hoarse when I’ve seen you take the stage. And I’ve quietly cheered for your wins, even though you may not have seen them or seen others cheer for them, because not everyone will have the courage to tell you what your magic is — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Your excellence — as students, as humans — is what got me through the first half of the hardest journey I have ever chosen. I didn’t know if I could make it through my first year as a teacher and in the Ako Mātātupu program, but if there is one thing that I can credit with the fact that I did, it would be the fact that you were in my class. All of you. I know you’ll come to realise that excellence takes many, many forms — and very, very few of them look like A+’s or E’s. That’s not to say grades aren’t important (depending on what you want to use them for), but they aren’t the whole of you.

I’ve been lucky enough to share classrooms and fields and assembly halls with you, I’ve shared hard words and easy laughs with you, and every moment was a privilege. As it will be for the other people who will likewise be lucky enough to share those moments with you.

I’ve seen your heart — yes, you, every single one of you — and I can tell you that as far as humaning goes, you’re fine. You’re good.

So, tonight, when you go to sleep, I hope you are not fretting about tomorrow and whatever characters show up on your screen. I hope you allow yourself to indulge in your wildest dreams, knowing that if those are what you truly want in the depth of your being, tomorrow may be a ticket — but it will never truly be a barrier, if you don’t let it.

And if, when tomorrow comes, you haven’t received exactly what you’d hoped for — please don’t beat yourself up. I’ll be there in B Block, in two weeks, ready to help you put together an action plan for making those wild dreams a reality.

No matter what happens tomorrow, I am proud. And I will gladly celebrate whatever you receive, because I believe in you.

Thank you for believing in me.

I build intelligent protocols that learn how great teachers teach, so we can help our learners learn better. felicityjanepowell.com