Being a “Gifted Student” may have ruined me.

Hi everyone,

I have an exam in 10 days. It will not go well.

So I’ve been doing a postgraduate level short course to help advance my career. And part of that course is an exam. An exam that I may very well fail. And for the longest time, my given reasoning behind this impending failure was that Covid-19 and quarantine had upset my schedule and made me more concerned about keeping my job as a teacher than studying to be a better teacher.

But this is untrue.

The truth is that without the nurturing cage of structured education, I am a domesticated animal in the wild; starving and unable to feed myself.

Because I was the ideal student. I was the student that came to class, understood things immediately, sailed through homework, took pretty notes that I never read and barely studied, only to pass exams with exceptional grades. Yes, this is a massive flex. I peaked in high school, okay? Let me have this. The rest of this post will point to how all of the above kinda ruined me. Because education for me was generally no risk, all reward. This isn’t to say I wasn’t engaged in education, I am passionate about learning new things and always have been.

So why am I worried about this exam?

Because I’m not in school anymore! The cage is gone and I have not had a teacher telling me what to do in so long. My course ended back in January, the exam got delayed to December. I’ve been running around trying to study on my own and nothing is working!

Because being a gifted student has ruined me. I don’t know how to study, I don’t know how to work hard and I’m an arrogant little child.

I don’t know how to study.

The current education system is a bit of an exam mill. Students are trained to perform in standardised tests, so there is a lot of focus on teaching content and also teaching the techniques to take an exam. This exam is not designed by the teachers, so teachers behave as translators for students to understand what the exam expects of them. This on top of acting as facilitators to learning the information needed to take the exam. Teachers are so pressured to balance these two sides that, in school, content and exam are essentially one and the same. Students look at their content in terms of what they need to know in order to pass the exam. Now, you might think this is positive or negative or whatever, there is an ongoing debate you can join. I don’t have the answer.

But I never did this. I always just enjoyed the content and never worried about the exam. I actually got annoyed when teachers brought up the exam. To me it was like the ads before a YouTube video. I get why it’s needed but will skip as soon as the option presents itself. And then when past papers came about, I just looked at the sample answers and did the same thing. I had to learn a bit but, having a natural aptitude for testing meant I picked it up. (Another sneaky flex sorry, I’m terribly insecure.)

So learning an exam is of little interest to me. Learning content is of greater interest.

Guess what the focus was during my course?

Yep, the exam. And I was the only one annoyed with this. Because many of my peers knew the content of the exam. I did not. The content of the exam is subject knowledge and knowledge of teaching methodology. And my peers had been teaching longer and just knew more than I did. I had major gaps in my knowledge, hence the course. I really wanted a teacher to stand at the front and drill subject knowledge into me.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, I know what the exam is asking of me and don’t know how to answer the questions. I just stare blankly at the answer sheet. Panic rising. Heart palpitating. Pain growing.

Because I really don’t know how to study. I have set texts to read to help me gain subject knowledge. It’s expected that you will learn the content yourself because… this is postgraduate level? The course I did was short and intensive and focused on the non-exam elements of assessment.

So here I am… uneducated and scared.

“So what?” You might think. Just read the texts. But the texts aren’t like textbooks from school. There’s no end of chapter quiz. There often aren’t pictures. Sometimes there’s a table and I get all excited. But they are academic reference texts focused on content. They don’t care about the exam. It’s the kind of stuff I would normally like but there is a dissonance between what all the texts are saying and what the exam expects.

Basically without the exam mill, I find that I actually struggle to find my direction and balance my time. Because I don’t know how to study without being drilled with information.

Also…

I am not a hard worker.

This exam is hard. It has a high failure rate. I am trying to study, but I’m mostly just writing this blog post.

Because I am not a hard worker. I work hard in the real world and in my job. But as you may have gleaned, I never worked hard in school. It all just came to me naturally. And yes. Woe is me. How awful that the pressures of education that gave my peers panic attacks were a non-issue for me. I know I sound like an ass. I am not trying to be an ass. However, full disclosure, I was a total ass about it in high school. I am a nicer person now.

I am not used to not understanding something the first time I read or listen to it. The mental exercise of struggling to understand a concept and seeking different explanations of it until you do…is not me. I don’t have the stamina for it. I panic and get angry and lash out. Failing makes me uncomfortable. Not getting something makes me feel stupid.

And I have been told my whole life that I am not stupid. I have been praised for being better than others and falling off that pedestal, even now as I near 30 years of life, is a terrifying prospect. Being clever and making my intelligence seem easy is such a part of my identity that something like working hard to attain success feels like a step-down from who I “truly am”. And I say this with the full understanding of what a messed up way this is to see yourself.

I feel awful thinking other parents have compared their child to me and said something like “why aren’t you more like her?” I have always been asked for tips to study and learn things from parents for their kids. There’s always this assumption that because I like to passively learn things, I must be very focused and involved with my learning. But that’s simply not the case. I like learning in the same way that I like watching documentaries. I pick up stuff and that stuff gets reinforced very quickly because I memorise it. Then I apply it in life.

Being good at school whilst not being a hard worker should not be praised. I knew so many people who worked so much harder than me who got similar grades and I felt like I was better than them. I really wasn’t. This desperate attempt to understand and explain myself is proof of that. I struggle with hard work. Work and learning are passive to me. Only when I became a teacher and saw the massive variety of students that exist did I understand that praising the passive intelligent student is a real issue in education. And I never do it. I despise seeing students struggle with their self-worth because things don’t come easily to them. And I despise seeing students like myself who aren’t being pushed far enough.

I now teach adults and I learn so much from that process. Adults work hard because they are motivated to learn for a specific purpose. And they know that things might not come to them immediately. The students in the class have families and work and other things in life that give them a greater sense of self-worth than my ticks on their homework ever will. I learn a lot from them.

And this has also helped me overcome the arrogance that was baked into me by a system that praises effortless perfection. Kind of.

I am an arrogant child.

Life is very much a process. That’s my wisdom for you today.

This whole exam panic has taught me a lot about me and how the education system affected the way I see myself. And this isn’t me saying the whole system is awful and needs to be scrapped. This isn’t really about the system itself, rather an exploration of how it’s impacted me.

That’s the thing about introspection. You start seeing your own thought process as an output and try to work backwards to find the input. I am finally posting more regularly on this blog. I am drawing more and engaging with my creative side more. And the reason is because I have realised that my whole approach of first-time effortless perfection has led to me not allowing myself to fail at things. If a blog post is not perfection, I don’t post it. If my drawing is not perfection, I don’t post. Standards are good but shouldn’t cripple you to the point where you never try to improve. I would not write or draw anything until I had perfected what I was working on. Because failing it meant I wasn’t good enough. And this is silly.

But this is what has been happening my whole life. I want to explore more creative fields and eventually maybe work in a creative field. But I have always held myself back waiting for a teacher to tell me how, or for my skills to suddenly be amazing. It’s very very silly.

There is an arrogant child in me that learned that first-time effortless perfection is her self-worth. And she kicks and screams whenever I start to be okay with failing. With not knowing something. With struggling to understand something. I know she is there now. But quietening her screams and internalising this new approach to life and creativity will take time.

So that’s me. How are you doing these days? Let me know in the comments.

I’m gonna get back to studying. Hopefully next week’s post will be about Christmas or something. I don’t know yet.

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