*note: this piece appeared in the Washington Post
If you’re a teacher, you might know the feeling. You maintain a frantic pace all year long, trying to shoehorn an impossible amount of the prescribed curriculum into a limited amount of time because ‘it might be on the test.’ You sprinkle multiple choice test taking tips into your lessons to help kids squeeze out a few extra correct answers. Your students practice using released test items from previous years–whole class periods sent sitting in front of a computer screen in silence to build stamina in preparation for the year-end standardized test that will measure your success and theirs.
Yet when the scores come out in June, you’re dismayed with the results. Why on earth did Maria score so poorly? How is it possible that Johnny shined in class but dropped two achievement levels on the test?
We really can’t blame teachers for taking this approach. They know their students’ test scores will be displayed on the big screen during a faculty meeting for their colleagues to see. Incoming tech-savvy parents will research whether their child is getting a ‘good teacher.’ A school report card grade will be determined in part by their students’ scores. There may even be some money riding on the outcomes. The pressure can lead to an inordinate amount of time spent preparing for the test.
But at some point we have to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is right for our kids. At some point we have to wonder if our MO might be part of the problem.
After seeing the above cycle play out in my own classes too many times, last year I resolved to try an experiment. I eliminated test prep from my curriculum, instead focusing on building strong relationships and devoting ample time to deep and engaging lessons with students at the center.
Here are a few of the goals I set for the year:
- Getting to know my students as individuals: I made it an intentional practice to talk more regularly with students about their personal lives, about their families and their interests outside of school.
- Focusing extra attention on my quiet, withdrawn students: I was especially deliberate about letting those under-the-radar students know that I saw them and that I appreciated their contributions to our class, even while respecting their boundaries.
- Sharing personal stories: I was much more open to telling students about my own life–stories from my childhood to illustrate points in class, things about my family and personal experiences that were relevant to our discussions.
- Taking time for positive home-school communications: On a regular basis, I contacted parents with good news regarding students’ progress or positive interactions that I saw. I used this approach especially with students I suspected did not get enough of that type of reinforcement.
- Pushing back against that panicky feeling that ‘we don’t have time for this’: I made more time for engaging class discussions about everything from literature to current events instead of cutting meaningful learning experiences off early or eliminating them entirely just to keep on schedule.
- Maintaining an upbeat, enthusiastic attitude: I embraced my role as the model for what I wanted to see in my students and did my best to stay positive at all times–especially on days when I wasn’t feeling it.
As test season approached, I didn’t deviate from our routine except to let students know that the test was one important measure of their learning this year and that I wanted them to take it seriously and do their best. Beyond that I told them I was already really proud of their progress this year and that this score was not the only way we had of determining their success. We kept on with business as usual right up until testing began.
When the individual score reports came back, I experienced the usual roller coaster of emotions–elation over students who showed tremendous progress, disappointment with results that were lower than I knew my students had wanted. It wasn’t until I looked at overall numbers that I could see the real impact of the changes I had made. Students passing the state’s End of Grade reading test had increased by nearly 12%, and my value-added growth measure was the highest I’d ever received. From a testing standpoint, it was the best result my students have achieved in the 23 years I’ve been in the classroom.
My experience from this past year confirms what research has been documenting for decades: relationships matter. Students who know that their teacher cares deeply about them and has their best interests at heart are more likely to be engaged and learning at a high level. This is especially true if the learning opportunities they find when they walk into the classroom are deep and engaging. Furthermore, those students we’ve taken the time to build meaningful relationships with are more motivated to demonstrate their learning on a standardized test.
We have to stop letting fear of results warp our classroom practice and do what is right for our students. The results will take care of themselves.