When you are sitting your exams, the last thing you are probably aware of is the invigilators in the room with you. At least, that should be the situation.
Invigilators are there to assist in the running of the exam, not hinder it, and making you aware of their presence is not going to help you much. If all goes according to plan, you won't hear an invigilator or need their assistance, and you can get on with the job in hand without a second thought.
The other side
The other side of the fence is often a complete mystery to students, as is right and proper. There is no need for them to know how brain-numbingly, stultifyingly boring it is. They have enough troubles of their own. This part of the summer term has a very different shape to it if you are a student, compared to the way it appears to staff.
At the start of the exam season, the prospect of your first invigilation is quite appealing. In the midst of teaching and the other hectic business of school life, an enforced period of doing absolutely nothing sounds positively beneficial in a zen, meditative kind of way.
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The gym is quiet, cool and more or less nothing is asked of you at all. Indeed, doing absolutely nothing is the legal requirement. No marking, reading (except for the exam paper – I've taken hundreds of different papers in my head and am qualified in a couple of dozen different subjects by now), speaking, using a laptop or phone, writing or nodding off is allowed. The biggest excitement you are permitted is 'occasional discreet patrolling'. Even this is denied you if you didn't take the precaution of wearing quiet shoes.
In the face of such compulsory inertia, staff are driven to make their own amusement to stave off sleep. I count the number of balls lodged in the rafters of the gym roof and the tiles on the end wall every year, and I have written half a dozen novels in my head.
Laying out the treasury tags in a satisfying grid pattern is an old standby, and for those of a mathematical bent, counting the number of redheads, blonds and brunettes takes a while, as does working out the percentage of candidates you have taught at any point in their school career.
Of course, the attendance list has to be attended to, and there is some amusement to be derived from the middle names of the candidates, who may have managed to hide Cedric or Lettice successfully during the rest of the year, but whose parental follies are exposed for all to see in May and June.
The ratio of invigilators to candidates is prescribed by the exam board regulations (one invigilator to thirty candidates) and a large exam can have quite a team of staff. This is where there are more possibilities for entertainment. The race to be first to reach the candidate with his or her hand up is the obvious one, but there are many secret and arcane games known only to the experienced exam hand. The rules of Stand By The Ugly Kid can only be known to the professional...
It's when things go wrong that being an invigilator is suddenly quite an interesting way to spend the time. Fire alarms; vomiting students covering their papers with diced carrots; undeclared phones ringing; the collapse of a desk; the arrival of an inspector at the moment when the rest of the invigilators have just noticed one of their number has actually fallen asleep. Moments like these are the icing on the invigilator's cake, but in a well regulated school, they are few and far between.
One of the most unappealing aspects of invigilation is the starting and finishing of exams. The amount of extra time some candidates are entitled to varies quite widely. In a large gym, there can be up to six exams going on at any time, and on top of these finishing times, the extra-timers can add another half dozen endings. For the unfortunate invigilator in pole position, this means constant clock-watching to ensure everyone stops when they should, and it is a truly nerve-wracking experience.
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I think you either have the kind of mind which can do this effortlessly or you don't. Guess which camp I fall into. A good exams officer is a gift from the gods. Seeing him and his assistants arriving just moments before you were going to have to deal with it all yourself and taking over is like the arrival of the Seventh Cavalry.
By the end of the exam season, there is no novelty left in invigilation. An hour can seem like a week, and the worst fate of all is for the person who is due to relieve you to have forgotten to turn up, dooming you to a second hour. There is nothing you can do about this. You cannot leave the room before they arrive, because the number of invigilators must not drop below the permitted ratio.
It's fair to say that colleagues with a poor track record on this can justly be said to be the pariahs of the staff room for months after. Two hours of invigilation can leave you scooping your eyes out with a spoon as a form of amusement, so bad it is.
None of this should trouble you candidates one whit. You have a job to do, and all you need to do is to do it. We invigilators are tough. We can cope, even if we aren't enjoying it, and the best of us won't even allow you to notice we're there. And now, if you'll excuse me, there's an ugly kid I need to stand next to...
Mrs Kinetta is a secondary school English teacher who writes for The Student Room under a pseudonym.
Image of students in exam used courtesy of ccarlstead via Flickr under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Image cropped and resized.