Getting Zero

I got zero on a maths test this week. Zero. On a maths test. I’m good at maths, and I’ve never got zero on anything in my life.

Afterwards I was shell-shocked for about fifteen minutes. The tests are given at the beginning of a weekly matrix algebra class I’m taking. Being 30 and studying algebra is already infantalising, but I do it because it’s wonderful. Flashes of GCSE Maths keep coming back to me and making sense in new ways, and I’m finally understanding (really understanding) statistical models that I’ve ran for years in SPSS but which I could only previously complete mechanistically rather than conscientiously.

The tests, however, are less exciting. First of all they’re multiple choice, which is a long-known  achilles heel of mine. Secondly, they’re at 3pm on a day when I have usually been working since 7am and so haven’t had a chance to revise before I get there. Still, I like tests and for the first few I did self-chuffingly well.  Then came the zero.

What surprised me was my reaction. The depth of my humiliation was burning, and that was even though no-one other than my tutor and me were ever going to see the score. Then there were the self-scorns. You know what I mean, the internal radio that starts blaring: “Oh God. ZERO. You’re terrible at maths. Really, terrible. Well, not terrible, I mean you panicked, you blanked.” [It’s true, I did. For the first time ever in my life I looked into my brain and the usually detailed whiteboard of memories was, unfortunately, wiped-clean]. Then my mind began the climb-down: “Anyway, this test doesn’t matter so much. You’re allowed to sub one score. Also, you did well on those others. See, you’re not entirely bad at maths….”

The internal dialogue carried on for the next fifteen minutes. Periodically the not-so-nice stuff would rear up “Why am I so bad at this?” and I could feel myself overcome with waves of blushing [my poor tutor must have thought I was coming down with flu]. Then the other side would kick in and I’d have to talk myself back down again. For the whole thing I was entirely impervious to whatever it was we were being taught next. Not until I had finally calmed the inner voice could I re-concentrate.

What particularly blind-sided me is that I regard myself an avid learner. I love learning. I love classes, and tests, and I’m not one to be easily knocked-over when things go wrong. And yet there I was, lumbering and panicking about a tiny multiple choice test. Euck. Afterwards I started thinking about students I’ve taught who really struggled with their work. Imagine if every lesson at school felt like this – if every time I did something there was a good likelihood of a zero, and the burning humiliation, and the exhausting mental battle. No wonder some kids give up.

As a teacher it’s so very easy to forget how complicated learning is and anything that can remind us of how messy, and embarrassing it is the better. Learning an instrument, a new language, a new craft [even matrix algebra if you’re feeling particularly masochistic] will soon make you see the enormous mental and emotional effort involved in being in a classroom, and how important a teacher can be in making things bearable. I keep imagining what would have happened if the tutor had read out the scores (as I sometimes did in the past), or if she had made a comment about “expecting more from me” (yuck), or – on the positive side – how great it might have been if a student with a higher score had found out and had offered to spend some time revising with me before next week. I’m also trying to model what I would tell a student to do in this position – to learn from this mistake and try and do it better next time.  We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.