Here I sit, on a Friday evening at Starbucks. Basic, I know.
Last night I started reflecting on the job I'm doing: what it means, how it makes me feel, how it makes my students feel. Truly, I found myself falling short in all the ways.
Now, let me zoom out for a moment and note that this has been no ordinary week. If you're reading this, surely you know that this week was the first round of state testing for my eighth graders. They took their math test on Tuesday, English on Wednesday, and lost their minds the rest of the week. God bless us, every one.
Okay, so when I'm having this existential crisis while getting ready for bed last night (you know when you take a minute in the midst of washing your face and just stare at your reflection in the mirror...) I realize that I am in a really high-stress time. I get it. Re-examining the inner workings of the education system and my role in it isn't my wisest bet at this exact moment in the game. But I can't seem to help myself.
In the last week I have had a version of the same conversation with my coworkers over and over again: if I don't take this dang test seriously, if my kids don't, then there are very real consequences both in terms of how they see themselves (and, let's be real, how I see myself) in the midst of failure and very literally, in that there are extra hoops to jump through and additional tests to take. To be clear, if students are unsuccessful on the English test (because they need to pass it to go high school), they will take it a total of three times before it's all said and done. They also have to pass the math test to go to high school. At my school, if a student fails the English test, they have probably also failed the math test; this means they'll be taking that a total of three times as well. They also have to take a science and social studies test. So, for those of you keeping score at home, that is 8 tests in one year for too many of my students. The ones who pass the first time for both will only take four this year. Only. LOL.
I digress. In this conversation I've had over and over again I'm facing the same giant that I feel like I confront every year. When asked, I explain that my job is to get my students ready for high school. To keep myself sane, I justify the amount of stress, tears, anxiety, anger, sleeplessness, etc. on the fact that getting my students to pass the state test is one of the hurdles to jump to get them ready for high school. I don't pause too long here to question if I actually think the test is an appropriate indicator of high school readiness because my brain will explode. But that's a conversation for another time, I suppose.
Here's the real breaking point for me, though: I spend a stupid amount of hours at school, at concerts, allllllll the sports games, all the things that I can get myself to because they matter to my students and my students matter to me. I spend a crazy amount of time trying to figure out how to build relationships with my 200 students. I care about them, about what they're coming to school having to deal with, about how what I teach them can shape them positively before I send them on to high school, all of it. All. Of. It. Centers on the relationships I build with them (read: trust). So it feels ugly and counterproductive to spend the entire last part of my time with a portion of them focusing on their passing this freaking test.
Failure affects my students differently. I don't mean that they're delicate wildflowers whose experiences are unique to just them and no other human, but it is a specific difference which is characteristic of the situation into which they have been born. So, so many of them view failure as final. It's all she wrote. So much of their time and stress revolves around both anticipating and bracing themselves against failure and it's so heart-wrenching to watch.
Trying to get a 13 year old to feel like something is important without building it up to such heights that it feels impossible to survive missing the mark is no easy task. And I'm not getting it right. I know I'm not.
I'm not sure any of us are. How can we? How can I teach my students that failure isn't final, that it's actually an opportunity to learn and grow, if the system we're functioning within communicates something different?
Whether intentional or not, the message is clear: pass this test, move on to other getting-ready-for-high-school-things (which is no cake walk, btw. After they take their test you'd think Jesus came to them in a dream and shared with them all the secrets of the universe and so they don't need this school thing. Bless.).
Fail your test? Cool. In ten school days we'll have that information to you, then you have ten school days to (by law) offer remediation for students who were unsuccessful on the first pass. Then, they'll take it again (the same week as the math re-take, the science, and the social studies tests. ITSFINEIMFINE.). Ten days later (the Monday after they get out of school for the summer) your school will get the results of that second administration. That means any student who had to take either/both of the tests a second time has to assume failure (we've discussed how well this works out), and anticipate attending summer school. The students who didn't pass that second time get to come to summer school all of June and take those blessed math and English tests for a third time at the end of the month.
Does it work? Does it help my kids--or anyone's? If this were my own literal child in this situation, would it be acceptable to me?
My answer to all of this is a resounding no. But even though I work at the most magical unicorn of a school, I have no options. The system is set up this very specific way by whomever, and my school and me and my kids have to fulfill our role in this thing which only serves to teach students that tests are more important than anything (I'm playing fast and loose with the absolutes here, but I'm worked up, so have some grace for me.).
But do you know the thing that messes me up maybe the most? For that group of students who we work with from here until the end of June, all they're getting, despite my greatest efforts to continue the things that I have been preaching from the beginning of the year (the test is just one factor to your readiness; this class is more than this thing you have to conquer in test-form; you are more intelligent than any test can calculate; you are this whole interesting, complex person; I am excited about teaching you about life and literature and how to communicate your own thoughts so other people don't do it for you), I worry that what they're hearing is that success=passing the state test. All our attentions, efforts, and time are dedicated singularly to getting as many students to pass as possible. Because if they don't? What if they fail it again and I could have done something more to prepare them better? The pressure is immense. For us, for them, it feels like too much. It's really difficult to believe they'll remember that I'm the teacher who cares about them as humans, and not just test-takers, when we have to think so much--for so long--about them taking these tests.
And I don't know what to do about it.