Farlington Prep Headmistress goes back to school

Never stop learning! Frances Mwale shares her success story, to encourage you to keep trying new things

By Frances Mwale

Getting and giving back marked work is fraught with difficulty. Do you single out the best for recognition and praise, or those who have made most improvement or been really original? Should those who have done well be allowed to crow or should modesty prevail as they learn not to boast? If we have a sense of pride in a job well done, do we also need the external affirmation of an A Grade or a % mark? Is the learning in itself enough?

Last academic year I undertook study in an adult education evening class of a subject about which, initially, I knew next to nothing. I rapidly fell in love with learning and decided to go all the way to sitting AS exams, along with other adult learners and some of Farlington’s Lower Sixth, back in May.

Deciding even before taking the papers that if I did badly I would simply keep quiet about it, I knew secretly that if I did well I would be more than happy to tell. Yet, when the time came my position on this altered: having done better than I had even dared hope, I wondered whether I should share my success lest it seemed rather immodest. To share only great news might skew perceptions of me: friends and colleagues might see me as some huge intellect, but mainly because I never confess to the failures. What effect would this have? Would I be seen as somebody so accomplished that when I do fail at things I am quite a let-down? Conversely, in keeping quiet, what am I hiding? Genuinely sharing success is a difficult idea for me and perhaps for many, so I have always defaulted to the preferred satisfaction of knowing that I have done a good job for myself, rather than feeding off others’ praise.

Anyway, after many such deliberations, I have decided to tell you that I am genuinely pleased with myself and can look back on the year as one of ‘great learning’.

How exactly then did this great learning come about? Certainly worthy of reflection and exploration in a professional capacity, I can surely pass on some wisdom to our younger learners. It all started with great teaching: not just great, but amazing. To say that the teacher had passion for her subject would be a gross understatement. Her enthusiasm for the topics spilled over into an outpouring of self into the lessons. Deep-rooted values, opinions, humour, emotion and thoughtful debate were omnipresent. I hope some of these qualities are in my lessons, too… The teacher’s subject knowledge was vast, but there was a preparedness on her part, too, to learn more; as students, we were allowed to question or even to challenge.

It came as a surprise to find that at the end of the first lesson there was homework. Was I really ready to undertake a piece of independent work so early on? But the task was matched to the skills I had acquired at that stage: some rote learning of essential vocabulary. Over the weeks, the complexity and demands of the homework increased. The level of challenge always suited where I had reached in my studies.  

Marking of my essays and tasks was so helpful – regular, thorough and constructively critical. Comments really celebrated any good and original points made, but also raised questions to provoke my thinking. Anything that was wrong was gently corrected: such as, ‘I wonder whether this is the case…’ or ‘I think you are confusing this with…’ I never felt ashamed to have had a try. The same was definitely true when in class. All comments were encouraged and built upon, no matter how tenuous the thought. There was no ‘hands up’ regime, but a lively debate where every person listened to one another, occasionally policed by the teacher. Going off on a tangent was not only acceptable, but encouraged, to get the grey matter whirring. Great learning!

Exam preparation was interesting. As a scientist, many of my previous exams involved interpretation and analysis, rather than factual recall, or at least that is how I remember it. Perhaps because I enjoyed the subjects, the facts stuck in my mind better anyway? This time, however, I needed precision. Precision of dates, facts and chronology. I had to get a whole set of alien pieces of information lodged into my brain. In the past, my modus operandi had been read, re-read and scribble down a few revision notes, never to be looked at again. I relied on what I could remember to get me through, rather than really paring down to the essentials and ensuring I had secure knowledge. I settled on mediocre marks.

For years in my teaching career, I have taught pupils so many ways of revising. Different methods work for different learners, but now I had to try some out for myself. My ways of old had not been highly effective for me. I had not really been an A Grade student since I was quite young; I now know why. It takes hard work and commitment to know your stuff inside out and back to front. I condensed my notes down; highlighted parts that were so interesting that I wanted to be able to impress an examiner with them; made checklists of dates and then sheets where I could test myself, doing them again and again until I got them all right. I used flashcards to remember dates and yet there was one date that kept on escaping me. I simply could not get it right – ever! What to do? What was the solution for committing this one particular date to memory? Well in the end, I drew a small picture of a house and then built into the fabric of the façade, the date that I needed to memorise. If I thought hard, I could see that small picture in my mind and subsequently never failed to remember it. I only had to do this for the one fact, but it worked.

Interesting to me was also how my revision changed over time. During the Easter holidays, when available work time felt eternal, I luxuriated in being able to read books on my subject, write out longhand sheets of information and refresh my knowledge of work done much earlier in the year. As the examination dates loomed, however, the need to condense, focus learning and concentrate on my weaker areas directed me to new types of learning. I found that chunks of time, regularly, were what worked best for me. A minimum of an hour was useful; maximum two at a time. Practising essay writing was my early morning task. I would get to work very, very early, and spend the first 25 minutes of my day writing; this was the time that I would have in the actual exam and when you seem to know a lot, sticking to a timeframe is a big, big challenge.

The exam days came. I wasn’t so much nervous as simply wanting to get on with them. This is a feeling I remember well from 30 years ago! Exams were never daunting as such, so long as I felt I had prepared well. But waiting outside with all the other candidates, lining up in prescribed order and marching into a sparse, echoing hall brought on an adrenalin surge. I think this actually helps, but deciding whether to ‘fight or take flight’ can induce a few seconds’ panic. Fortunate to be seated right at the front so as not to see what others were doing, it was time to get my head down and start writing constantly. I had little time at the end for any checking and, in retrospect, in future exams I would try to manage at least a quick read-through before downing tools. I left the hall feeling that I had enjoyed what I had written and given of my best.

Now the advice that teachers give about not talking to anybody else when you come out into natural light once again is very sensible. As we left the area and began to share about the question paper and our responses, all those feeling of self-doubt and annoyance crept in – ‘I forgot to include that’, ‘I chose completely different questions to everybody else’, ‘I wonder if I spelled that name correctly’. My advice to all examination candidates would be: ‘WALK AWAY!’

As results day loomed I was out of the country having a wonderfully sunny holiday, but as soon as I stepped on the plane to return, the thought of collecting my results the next day popped into my head. In fact, I didn’t go in for results day. Nor the next. It took four days before I ventured in to get my envelope. On seeing a colleague in the staffroom and holding the envelope firmly in my hand, I said, ‘I am never going to open this’. Of course, I changed my mind and was very glad that I did.

I had also made up my mind that if my results were OK, I would continue to study this year too. In fact, it was never to do with the result; the learning was so intensely amazing that wild horses wouldn’t keep me away!


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