Pencils have been the bane of my existence as a teacher. I have been through every possible system of pencil lending. I have used sign-out sheets. I have sent home a notice to refill supplies each time a child didn’t have a pencil. I have assigned a class job to someone to track down the kids who had borrowed pencils and make them return them. I have bought the kids personalized pencils with their own names on them. I have even insisted on collateral, insisting that a kid give me something of theirs that they would only get back if they returned my pencil. Initially, the collateral worked well, until the kids just started handing me trash from their desk in exchange for a pencil.
So one day, I just said, “No.” A fifth grader, who never had a pencil, asked me to borrow a pencil. I looked over at my pencil cup and saw it was empty. I knew that I had more unsharpened pencils in my closet but I was in the middle of a writing conference with another student and I didn’t want to interrupt it. So, I said, “No.”
“I don’t have any more pencils.”
“What am I gonna do?”
“I really don’t know. You’ll have to solve your problem.”
And with that, I went back to my conference. Well, this boy floundered a bit, but walked over to his backpack, and lo and behold, found a pencil among the dregs at the bottom of the bag.
I don’t worry about pencils anymore. Yes, I put a bunch in a pencil cup at the beginning of the year, and if I remember to refill it from time to time, I will. But they’re just pencils. I used to take it so seriously, as a matter of principle. If you can’t be prepared with a pencil, how are you going to be prepared for everything else that is coming your way?!! Well, that’s baloney. Who among us has not used someone’s pen and walked away with it by accident? Or used a pen at a restaurant and stuck it on our pocket when we were finished signing the check? It happens.
It turns out, the kids have ways of getting pencils that don’t require my tutelage or guidance. My students had gotten so used to me providing them pencils, they just didn’t even consider looking for their own before asking. And if, for some odd reason, they really can’t find a pencil, and no one has one for them to borrow, then I just tell them to use a crayon, or anything else they can find. If they’re just avoiding work, they’re going to avoid the work regardless of whether I give them a pencil. But what I have found is that when I worry less, the students take more initiative to have what they need or solve the problem for themselves.
2. Nurse visits
I was one of “those kids.” I went to the nurse pretty much every day. I always had headaches. Part of it was that I really needed glasses so I actually was having headaches, but also, I think my little body just wanted a break from time to time.
I am 36 years old and elementary school was a totally different ball game back then. Much less stressful. Even then, I still felt overwhelmed and wanted a time out.
So it’s no surprise that my students feel the same way. I used to fight it. I knew students were trying to get out of class. But one day, I realized this was a losing battle. If I kept them in the room, they would glower and histrionically act sicker than they really were. Either way, they have “gotten out of class,” even if they’re physically in the room.
Now, if a kid asks to go, I react kindly, as one should if a person says that he or she isn’t feeling well. I tell the student to fill out a nurse’s pass (rather than me take the time to fill it out for him or her), and I let it go. The student is generally back pretty quickly and he/she feels heard, respected, and if nothing else placebo-ed into contentment.
3. Names on papers
Again, this used to bother me on the principle of the matter. If you don’t take the responsibility to put your name on this, how are you going to take responsibility for your taxes one day?!!! (Don’t act like you haven’t made an extrapolatory leap like that.) I used to take 5 points off if kids forgot to write their last name and another 5 point off if they forgot to write their name at all. To the students I taught in the first years, I’m so sorry. And I’m so embarrassed. I was just playing teacher. You committed no criminal offense by leaving off your name.
Now, I realize that this is just not that big of a deal. When I go to hand papers back, I just put the “no-name” ones out on the carpet, and ask the kids to find their own and put their names on them. If they can’t find theirs, I just give them a new one to redo.
Obviously, I prefer when the students write their names. I think it shows pride and maturity. But, I was starting to take it very personally, which is objectively silly. So I let that one go, too.
You know what? I like chewing gum, too.
You know what else? When kids are chewing gum, they don’t talk as much.
You know what else? I used to find a lot more gum covertly hidden under tables when gum wasn’t allowed in the room.
You know what else? When kids are chewing gum, their breath is better. We’re in close quarters. Take your victories as you can.
I know. I know. How can I not worry about testing? My results get reported. The school’s results get published. I am held accountable for my testing data by my principal in intense one-on-one meetings and grade level meetings. My students’ scores, as much as I wish they didn’t, follow them into their next school year, creating a narrative for who they are before anyone gets to know them. Testing is serious and has serious consequences.
Don’t get me wrong. I want my students to do well. I want them to feel proud and confident, and I want their caregivers to feel validated. I want my school administrators to have an easier time reporting to their supervisors. I want the community to respect my students, and sadly, published test scores garner that respect.
But, when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe that high-stakes testing is healthy for children, and I don’t believe that high-stakes testing reveals much about a school, other than where it falls on the continuum of economic and racial privilege. So, I stop worrying about testing.
Instead, I worry about being an excellent educator. I worry about developing a curriculum that is holistic and interconnected from discipline to discipline. I worry about choosing materials that reflect the composition of my class, challenge their capacities for empathy, and push their reading levels higher. I worry about developing writing assignments that are meaningful so that my students develop an authentic written voice that represents their authentic thinking. I worry about having sustained time every day for the students to read and write without me interrupting them. I worry about developing Social Studies lessons that don’t just show multiple perspectives from marginalized voices at the end of a unit, but every single day. I worry about creating a home in our classroom where each student feels unique and vital. I worry about when I fall short of this vision and how I’m going to take responsibility for my shortcomings, rather than blame the kids, or blame their caregivers, or blame the system.
And so I don’t worry about testing. Yes, I will teach test-taking skills. And I will follow the testing protocols. But, I will not make a big deal about it. I will not add to the stress level of 10 and 11 year olds. I will make sure they are prepared for ANY academic challenge, and if it happens to be a test, then it happens to be a test. While the public or the policymakers might not trust my judgment without “hard data,” I don’t need the test scores to know if I’m doing my job well. I see their progress. I have their portfolios and their grades. I am aware of my blind spots and what I am doing to hold myself accountable. I am a professional, whether legislators believe that I am.
This year, when I put the least effort into preparing my students for one of their “big” tests, they made 85% growth. Last year, when I was more stressed about it, my students made 60% growth. I do not think this is a coincidence. I worried about the right things this year.