I have been in a lot of classrooms and have worked with teachers in small groups as schools are beginning to gear up for the April NYS ELA test. These are a few of my observations...
- Anxious children, twisting hair and tapping pencils on their desks as they write short and extended responses and do multiple choice questions;
- A teacher unknowingly raising student anxiety as she keeps assuring the students to do their best and that will be good enough;
- Teachers crying because of the anxiety they are feeling about multiple changes and feeling a lack of success because of their lack of focus;
- Good teachers fearful for their jobs;
- Principals pushing easy answers so that children can do well on a test.
Now, of course, this is not true for all teachers and all principals—I can also easily name confident and supportive educators, choosing good instruction and a community environment that supports the whole child as a pathway toward the April test day. But, I am seeing more and more teachers and students feeling on edge and anxious because of the test. Does this level of anxiety promote success?
I remember when I was in graduate school. It was my first and intro class to Reading Theory. We had a final exam and for weeks before the exam, the professor emphasized the importance of this exam and how it would contribute to our success in graduate school as we prepared to be literacy specialists. She raised our levels of anxiety and awareness with these weekly reminders. I studied and have always been an excellent student. I knew the materials and I was a good writer. The test was timed and the questions covered the scope of our semester class and the books that supported the class. I prepared nightly to succeed on the test. And each day I got a little bit more anxious. I started to believe that I wouldn’t succeed. By the day of the test I was a mess. I wasn’t sleeping at night and when I was awake, I would study some more. I felt that the outcome of this one test would affect the career I was so anxiously embracing.
On the day of the test, I went to school ready but tired. Knowing the material but anxious about my ability to show my knowledge. I got my exam and looked at the questions and began to race through the test to finish. I would get to a question I knew and I couldn’t express the concepts that I had labored over to understand. I would be asked a factual question—facts that were stored in my brain—and I couldn’t recall them. I froze. And I failed.
After the test the professor met with me because I had been, throughout the rest of the semester, one of her top students. She wanted to know what happened. I told her and she allowed me to take the exam again, in a different circumstance for which I got an A. This event is a pivotal moment in my learning and understanding of what happens when we try to perform with anxiety.
I have taken this learning with me as I became an educator. As a teacher I worked to buffer my students from anxiety so they could perform in an optimal way. I did yoga with them. I created many moments of celebration. I played videos for them showing what great learners they were. And I told them how proud I was of them as they worked to perform their best--doing this throughout the year, not separate for a four week test preparation. This stance, coupled with good instruction that allowed the students to know how to write and read, allowed students to show what they knew.
Regie Routman wrote a blog article last year entitled To Raise Achievement Let's Celebrate Teachers before We Evaluate Them. As a principal, I always viewed myself as a buffer to teachers. I worked to lower their anxiety because I knew that if they were anxious, it would often transfer to student anxiety. I did this by creating celebrations of what we were doing well. And now, as a staff developer, there are moments that I feel a bit more of a counselor and a cheerleader of all of the good that is being done. Celebrations help.
We want our students to succeed. Anxiety isn’t the way to success. Celebrations help create success Let’s celebrate our successes on the pathway to success! This is good for adults and children alike.