Ah, the Beginning of School Enthusiasm in August. Remember when you went up to your classroom a week early to start unpacking and rehanging and laminating all the new stuff for your walls? Remember how you had a new, exciting idea for the first week Get-to-Know-You activities? Remember how you planned entire units at a time and had copies made a week in advance? Remember how everything was filed and organized and labeled? Your alarm was set for 5:30am so you had time to enjoy that cup of coffee before leaving the house. Lunches were packed the night before and included actual food groups. Clothes were picked out days in advance and IRONED. All the things were graded and responded to and returned in a timely manner.
Now, in May, it’s all still running exactly the same…with slight variations.
The alarm still goes off at 5:30am. I stop snoozing at 6:15. I pull clothes out of the hamper and spray them down with Febreeze to dry on the way to school. Lunches are combos of prepackaged items. For instance, today I have a pack of peanut butter crackers, a tub of applesauce, and a juice box. Coffee is hurriedly poured into a travel mug that may or may not be left on top of my car. I am shoulder-to-shoulder with my students on the way into the building and mentally preparing my lesson for the day. Here’s hoping I don’t have to fight anyone for the copier. Dress code check is a glassy-eyed sweep of the room that sees the bodies but doesn’t really SEE them. The kids are here and wearing clothes: check.
This is all done in a nervous frenzy. The pressure is mounting and we all (teachers and students) feel like the sirens could go off any minute. WHY? I hear you cry. Because TESTING.
May (in NC) is Testing Time. Which really is cruel and unusual punishment from the PTB (Powers that Be) who decide these things. In my first several years of teaching, I had a colleague who said, “May is for movies.” At the time, I was disappointed in her cynicism. Now? I get it. We ALL get it.
Middle school children’s bodies react to May the way animals can sense a tornado: eyes wild, searching for the nearest escape route, and ignoring any suggestions on how to survive. The walls of our classrooms practically bulge with the suppressed energy, hormones, and volatile emotions. And someone in some office somewhere decided THIS! This is the time of year! we should assess students’ mastery of their year’s academics. That’s like trying to get a cat to subject to a physical exam while immersed in a bathtub full of water surrounded by growling dogs. The FIGHT OR FLIGHT instinct takes over and the kids either collapse in a heap of drooling sleep or play Connect 4 with the test’s bubble sheet.
I have 115 students and, at this point in the year, that’s too many. (In reality, that’s ALWAYS too many, but it becomes oppressive in a THE UNIVERSE IS TRYING TO KILL ME kind of way in May.) I have a tacit agreement with the seven students who have been failing all year: I will leave them alone if they’ll leave me alone. The gifted kids are basically teaching the class and I’m there to prevent bloodshed and open revolt. (I am always amazed that mutiny is not more of a THING in middle and high schools.)
Teachers, sadly, are sometimes MENTALLY in the same place as the students. Oh, we look cool and collected (for the most part) on the outside, but on the inside? We are already mentally packing up the classroom library and wondering where the hell we’re going to store those individual copies of the district assessment we were asked (read “forced”) to administer, but which the students weren’t allowed to write on but contain sensitive “released” test material and cannot be destroyed. There is no careful packing of desk items but questions to the custodial staff like: “If I leave everything in my desk, it’ll be tossed around, but it’ll still be there, right?”
The tops of our desks look like this.
I don’t even know what half that stuff is. It has settled into the strata you see over the past three weeks. I think there are assignments in there I was supposed to grade in April. Are students still doing homework? I don’t even know because everything that’s been turned in is lurking on my desk somewhere. That random battery? No idea.
And yet, we are still WORRIED about our students and the test. Not just because now it’s become linked to our professional prowess and whether or not we’ll have a job next year. But because on top of all this normal, adolescent upheaval and IMPENDING SUMMER INSANITY, these tests cause panic. As much as middle school kids try to act like they CARE ABOUT NOTHING, they worry about these tests. Either because they want to do well, or because they have never done well and are just anticipating another failure, or because it will determine what class they get to take next year, or because mom will be here proctoring and WHAT IF SHE EMBARRASSES ME?!, or they don’t want to disappoint their favorite teacher, or is this really more important than being a good person?
185 days is tiring for all of us. The kids come dragging in on May (insert date here) and I’m all: Courage, men.
20 more days to reviewreviewreview and hope that the selected 19th century poem they put on the test is not written in iambic pentameter because DID WE GET TO THAT? And there’s the rub. It’s all too much. We test them too much. We make them sit too much. The PTB ignore too much. We scold too much. We talk too much. They talk too much.
The days I love the most as a teacher are the days where I forget about the tests and evaluations and personal CRAP and get psyched about learning something with my students. And the days the kids smile and laugh and learn the most are the days they forget about the tests, and social judgement, and personal CRAP and explore story and language with me.
So the end of the year is bittersweet because SUMMER but also goodbye. Good luck with that summer program/mom’s new boyfriend/time to forget ALL THE THINGS. Summer is workshops and planning and free time and boredom and, Dear God can I do this again next year? It is time to recharge and let Summer Amnesia take hold so we forget the bureaucratic and remember the basics: We teach; they learn. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it sucks. We care; they pretend no to. We all know that, regardless of the test results or PTB or day-to-day motivation – we’re in this together.
Next August we’ll be fresh. The students will be rested and have binders that close. We will be back in our stride with planning and grading. Hands will be raised, students will be called on, questions will be asked… all to hear:
“We never learned that.”