6 April 2017
Every term we come together to celebrate the achievements of our girls. This can be everything from sporting colours to academic endeavours and I am always impressed by the range of things they have done. Not, however, nearly impressed enough, based on my recent experience.
In the winter term, I, along with around 20 other members of staff, agreed to put myself for a moment in the shoes of our girls by preparing for and sitting a Grade 1 music exam – piano for me but there were a huge range of other instruments offered. The goal was to be taught by a girl – to swap places, as it were – and within the space of one short term, actually sit the exam.
I attended all my lessons and played the role of student as well as I could. I practised regularly and prepared myself as well as I could, physically and mentally. Then, the week before my exam was scheduled, I fell over and broke my thumb.
If I had been one of our elite musicians preparing for a serious exam that would have an impact on my future, this would have been devastating. For me, it was disappointing but at the same time something of a relief. The pressure was off. However, I had committed to taking the exam so, while the rest of my cohort were celebrating fantastic success in the exams they had managed to sit, I was back at the piano, practising again. It was harder, without that element of competition, and, while recovered, my thumb does still cause me some pain. But giving up was not an option. One of the most important things we teach our girls is resilience. A setback is a learning experience, not a reason to give up. How could I tell my girls they need to constantly keep challenging themselves if I myself was prepared to quit after the first obstacle?
So my second exam day dawned – and I suspect I may have blown it. Nerves got the better of me and I made silly mistakes. Nonetheless, I got through it – I am so proud of myself of carrying on despite my injury and I do feel a real sense of achievement. The very next day, despite feeling somewhat disappointed by my performance in front of the examiner, I had to overcome nerves and adrenaline once more to perform one of my exam pieces in front of the whole school in our celebratory assembly. In front of many girls who are extremely accomplished musicians, in front of the other members of staff who have since picked up their distinctions, merits and passes. Once again, I was nervous and once again, it wasn’t my best performance – but I did it.
The whole experience has given me a very useful perspective on what our girls go through so regularly. It takes a huge shift in mindset to move from your daily routine to exam mode and for some of our girls, they have to leave midway through a lesson, go to their exam and then return, ready to work again. We expect them to do that, perform to the best of their ability in both and catch up on anything they have missed. Last year more than 160 music exams were taken at Headington, along with countless other tests and exams, from Speech and Drama to Linguistics Olympiads. We expect our girls to prepare for them and then almost take in their stride. That’s an incredible accomplishment. I have also been reminded how important goal-setting can be, how working towards something specific – Grade 1 in my case – focuses the mind and forces you to do the work. Would I still have been practising in my spare time if I didn’t have an exam to sit? I know many of my colleagues who sat Grade 1 in November haven’t since picked up their instrument.
I now face the anxious wait to see if I have done enough to pass and done credit to my fantastic teacher, Hazel – just as the music students who sat exams with me will be doing and just as all our girls will be doing for internal and external exams throughout the year. If I have passed, and I hope I have, I shall be displaying my certificate with pride.
Caroline Jordan, Headmistreses, Headington School