… summer’s long expanse disappears and here you are with no time left for preparation. If this is you, you probably start the academic year feeling ruffled, that you are already behind, and playing catch up is draining.
Are you ready for the upcoming academic year? Did you do everything you meant to do? Are you organised? It’s easy to underestimate the challenges the academic year brings. As with any new beginning, there are opportunities to start again, to apply oneself with fresh energy, and even rectify the mistakes of the previous year. But this is easier said than done. These good intentions get overlaid with other factors and before you know it you’ve found yourself in the same low-flying pattern as before. So what’s the best way of getting into gear? I have three tips to get you up and moving. The first and most important is to just take a pause and breathe. Give yourself a break from the unrelenting pace of your life and you will begin to see how pressurising yourself is draining your energy. Recognise how demanding the holiday period can be. Time for fasting and domestic tasks, for rest and relaxation, family and friends mean summer’s long expanse disappears and here you are with no time left for preparation. If this is you, you probably start the academic year feeling ruffled, that you are already behind and playing catch up is draining. Pausing and breathing allows you to gather yourself. My second tip is to give your feelings the honest attention they deserve. Whether it’s tiredness, disappointment or frustration over ‘should have dones’, acknowledging emotions big and small is as important as practical preparations. To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Farid, typical of many young people I come across. He avoids the preparation he knows is necessary. He’s not grasped what’s happening yet, nor is he too concerned. His reasoning is his last year was very stressful and he needed a break from work. But something is bubbling beneath the surface – a worry that he won’t do well. Not facing his feelings means it’s also hard for him to concentrate. He has a gnawing sense that something isn’t quite right. Soon Farid starts to entertain feelings of doubt about his ability. He procrastinates further, and now his parents are starting to worry. When they encourage him, he doesn’t believe them, and when they tell him off, he reacts badly. Soon everyone’s blaming everyone else, and Farid’s now so fearful that he’s losing confidence with teachers and peers. This in turn impacts on his grades and even social interactions. Feelings of failure have turned into a reality that’s getting harder to break. Farid’s situation shows how easy it is for feelings to get out of hand. It also shows how important it is to deal with emotions intelligently, hopefully before they become intractable. Some feelings are hard to deal with because they aren’t pleasant. Yet working through them is not only the key to being prepared for the academic year, but also learning about learning, an essential part of any student’s skill set. For many people, the act of learning takes a conscious effort. So acknowledging your emotions, however painful, is the key to managing learning. With this awareness you often find that emotions you were avoiding are not as bad as you thought. Amazingly, there is a part of us that knows we are running away from the truth, if we have the courage to face it. God says: ‘No! The human is witness over its own self, Even if it offers excuses’. (75:14-15) My third tip is to profit from new insights by directing your energy more beneficially. There’s many ways of doing this; it’s really whatever helps you.
For many people, the act of learning takes a conscious effort. So acknowledging your emotions, however painful, is the key to managing learning. With this awareness you often find that emotions you were avoiding are not as bad as you thought.
When you have the intention to help yourself, when you’ve prepared the emotional ground so you are open, God guides you to just the right resource that meets your needs. It could be a verse in the Qur’an that leaps out at you, or it might even be through deep reflection. Whatever it is, allow that inner wisdom to come through by listening to yourself and acting on it. Another good way is talking with someone who won’t judge you, who’s trained to help you to see blind spots and overcome things you’re stuck with. School or college counsellors are accustomed to working with student issues, and teachers and parents can also really support this process. By putting your insights into action, you not only make it harder to fall back into old habits, you also build on what you’ve discovered and start to find new strategies to help with learning. The other important factor is the interaction between parents and young people. The beginning of the academic year acts like a pressure cooker, pushing everyone’s feelings into each other. Although it’s the young person that’s starting school or college, parents are also under pressure. Parents also can benefit from the three tips outlined above. Pause and breathe, otherwise things can easily escalate. As we can see in Farid’s case, anxiety often manifests in trying to find someone to blame. The parent blames the young person, they blame the parent, and sometimes both blame the teacher and school, and so it goes round. This is known as the ‘blame game’ – not because there isn’t any truth in what’s being said, but the underlying motivation is fear, to protect oneself from difficult feelings of possible failure. Blame is a shortterm fix in that a victim doesn’t need to take responsibility, but in the long term it also prevents us from taking steps to change things. You blame someone else, feel temporarily better, but your life gets stuck where it is. Again, even for parents, ‘giving their feelings honest attention’ is important. It is hard indeed when the stakes are so high; education is very often a passport to a good job, economic success and social status. In Farid’s case, his parents accept and love Farid for who he is, but like many parents, they also feel huge responsibility for him. They’ve worked hard and invested energy, love, and resources so naturally their hopes are that he’ll do well and surpass their achievements. This isn’t wrong – high aspirations for children can be beneficial, motivating them to achieve more, but it’s confusing to know what to do when they fall.
Parents can feel helpless and anxious in relation to school failure and negative aspects of behaviour. Children’s achievements can be a source of pride, a reflection of their upbringing and genetic heritage, but it works the other way too. If they do badly, parents can feel vulnerable and ashamed. It’s a fine line, knowing when to push children and when to give them space, but it’s also so easy for parents to become ‘pushy’ without realising because they are being driven by anxiety or anger because they feel ashamed. In Farid’s case, his parents’ criticism was something he couldn’t face at that point. The more vulnerable he felt, the less he could admit his difficulties to himself, let alone his parents. He needed some space to work things out for himself, but his parents also needed space and to develop their emotional intelligence. They too needed to look at their own motivations, and act accordingly. There’s no denying this is hard work – facing our blind spots, letting go of blame and experimenting with new ideas. But whatever your circumstances, it’s never a mistake to look clearly and compassionately at yourself and your family, especially at the beginning of the school year, when clarity has the potential to reap huge rewards.