Teachers: We are exhausted, we are excited, we are fearful. Welcome to the 2016 testing season!!
Today was the first day of standardized testing at the elementary school where I work. Teachers arrived early to check out testing supplies. Parents crowded the car rider lines, dropping students off a good 15 minutes before their arrival time. All campus faculty and staff were smiling as they greeted each other in the hallway. Everything was looking optimistic…until it wasn’t.
I want you to understand that I have a love/hate relationship with this time of the year. You see, I am competitive. And I like to get evaluations on how well my students master learning objectives. So test taking for me, is sort of exciting please do not judge me too harshly—there is a big but coming.) BUT, I am here to tell you that I am exhausted. And I bet you are too. My excitement and fear are coexisting in a very tiny place. I have faith that I have done everything in my educational power to push the students toward success, but fear is creeping in on me. And like every year at this, I am beginning to doubt myself. Fear is a much darker friend than optimism. I don’t like fear. It makes me weak and indecisive. Fear makes my stomach hurt, and my head hurt too. And to tell you the truth, now I want to cry. But, I don’t cry because I can handle this. I am the teacher, and teachers don’t cry. Period. But sometimes, the kids do.
And so cry some kids did today, before their tests were being passed out to them, before they arrived at school, even before they went to bed last night. You know students like this. They over obsess about failure instead of nurturing their confidence. You see them in your classes each day succeeding, learning, growing. But today is the day of the big test. And you can hardly recognize these students today. They act like a totally different, terrified kid that you didn’t know before yesterday. And for these reasons, I really hate standardized testing. And I bet you do too.
Last week I was in a bookstore, and I happened upon a book written by the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. I am not a Buddhist, but I love the idea of Zen. The book was about facing fears. I read the book today after school because I saw a lot of fear and anxiety on campus today. Guess what? I feel better now. So much so that I thought I would share what I learned today.
I learned that it is better to acknowledge anxieties, and replace them with emotions that are kinder to our souls. I was re-taught that positive and negative emotions coexist inside all of us. Hanh wrote that being in the moment and not worrying about the future, or grieving about past events, will allow our thoughts to be focussed on the tasks at hand. You have probably read these thoughts before. I mean they are pretty common mindsets. After my reading today, I was thinking that yes, I know how to self-soothe. But have we taught these survival skills to our students? Or have we assumed they were already equipped with these skills? Or do we not even see these skills as part of our curriculum?
I don’t want to sound too idealistic and “out-there.” And I say these things with respect and with all seriousness. Maybe something as simple as thinking positively and replacing our negative self-descriptions with positive thoughts, would be an effective way to retrain our students to be kind to themselves. Practicing self-kindness could be revolutionary in situations that are high stress—for us and for our kids.
What if we teachers modeled this type of self-reflection for our families, students, and coworkers? Our environments can be more peaceful, and potentially more productive.
We know that testing is not going away any time soon. I also know that tomorrow, round two of testing will bring more tears and anxious stomachs. We say that we believe in ourselves, and we can do it (whatever the “it” might be). But how do we cast off the negative emotions and doubts? Tomorrow I will be taking deep breaths with the student testers. I will be modeling how to take an internal dialogue of doubt, and replace the unkind with gentler self-descriptors. When it’s time to do something difficult, test or other, maybe they will be able to choose to be kind to themselves, just like their teacher has taught them.