EP19: You’re a teacher, not a tester. In this episode, you’ll learn strategies for staying focused on what’s really important, both in your mindset and your daily practice. Discover specific, practical tips for getting creative with test prep so it feels more like the authentic learning activities that matter most.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.

A big thank you to this episode’s sponsor, GoNoodle. GoNoodle is a free website with interactive videos and games to help kids focus during the school day! I love GoNoodle because it makes it super easy for teachers to find the energizing OR calming breaks students need to stay engaged. Teachers can sign-up for free at GoNoodle.com!

So let’s dive right into today’s topic on balancing test prep and teaching. If you’re a regular listener of Truth for Teachers or if you’ve read my new book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day… No Matter What, then you know I can’t talk about high stakes tests without emphasizing the importance of having clearly defined vision for why you teach. No matter how others may choose to evaluate your work, you can’t define your own success as a teacher according to whether students pass a standardized test. That’s a recipe for frustration and burnout.

Instead, get clear about the reason why you do what you do. You have a reason for being in this profession that goes beyond just getting a paycheck–there are a lot easier ways to get a paycheck in this world. Why are you in the classroom? Do you want to make a difference in lives of troubled kids? Do you want to inspire kids to love learning?

Go into the classroom each day with a single-minded focus on making a meaningful impact on kids. Keep that in the forefront of your mind at all times. Remind yourself of it when you enter the classroom each morning, and reflect on it every afternoon when you leave the building. You have a purpose, a calling, a unique opportunity to impact the next generation… and all of this goes far beyond anything related to a test.

A strong vision for teaching will permeate everything you do in the classroom. It will bring a deeper sense of purpose to otherwise disheartening test prep activities. It will help you keep your (bigger, healthier) perspective even if everyone around you is focused on scores.

how to balance test prep

Staying focused on your vision will also help you keep your enthusiasm, which makes learning more enjoyable for kids. If you’re stressed out from focusing too much on high stakes assessment, students will sense that, and it creates anxiety in them, too.

One of the best things you can do for students is to stop reminding them about the importance of standardized tests. When I first started teaching in Florida, I was horrified to learn that 3rd graders who didn’t pass The Test would be retained. I felt tremendous pressure to get all the kids on grade level because their future was on the line — not passing the test was going to cost them an entire year of their lives spent repeating third grade.

I used to get very stressed out because I felt like I cared more about my kids’ scores than most of them did, so I would constantly remind them, “Pay attention! You need to know this —the test is in 2 months! If you don’t pass this test, you’re going to be in third grade again next year!” It was part of the school culture there at that time. All the teachers around me were doing this too, so I thought it was okay. In fact, I thought I was doing my kids a favor because I was making sure they knew what was at stake.

I always send home parent surveys to get feedback on how the school year went. Generally, I let parents complete these anonymously because I wanted an honest critique. And that year, one of the parents said that I stressed her son out so much that his stomach was in knots every single day. She said he didn’t sleep at night, he was crying, and was just constantly anxious about passing the test.

Reading that made ME sick to MY stomach. I had no idea who the child was, because none of the parents or kids had reported anything like that to me during the school year. It was a complete shock, and it’s part of the reason why I think parent surveys are so important. If I hadn’t specifically asked for feedback just for me —nothing that gets reported to my principal, or gets factored into my evaluation, just a personal reflection tool —I would never have known and I probably would have tortured the next year’s class without even realizing it.

I realized when I read that parent’s comments that I was not helping my kids by over-emphasizing the test. It seems kind of obvious now in retrospect, but when your job and kids’ futures are on the line and students are sitting there goofing off and playing around in class, I think it’s natural to want to put the pressure on their shoulders and try to make them take things seriously.

But the solution is probably the exact opposite. Too many people are already taking the test too seriously, and the kids who aren’t, won’t change just because you’re yelling and threatening them with retention.

I teach students, not standards; A teachers is more than a test score...and so is a child

Kids need to know the importance of the test, but more importantly, they need to know the importance of learning and hard work. So we have to stay focused on getting them motivated and helping them take ownership of their learning. We have to help them see the value of the task at hand so they are intrinsically motivated.

And we have to give them valuable tasks, too. We can’t fault for kids for not being gritty and putting forth effort if the majority of tasks they’re given are boring, rote, and meaningless. So, constantly looking for new ways to help kids practice tested skills in authentic contexts and real world projects is critical. That takes time and energy on our part, for sure. But the effort pays itself back in spades because student engagement goes up and teaching becomes more enjoyable. We can’t wait for someone else to make teaching fun again, we have to plan for it!

We can exercise our creativity and figure out ways for kids to practice tested skills without using a test prep format. Students do need to know test-taking strategies and be familiar with the format of the standardized tests they’ll be taking, but most kids don’t need daily (or even weekly) exposure to the format.

5 ways to make test prep more engaging

We can experiment with alternative strategies for implementing the test prep activities and worksheets we’re mandated to give. For example, instead of passing out a review worksheet each day as an independent warm up, occasionally project the page for your class to see, and have them work with a partner to solve problems collaboratively and talk about their strategies.That gets kids talking and thinking deeply as they have to explain their thinking and agree on strategies to use.

You can try reviewing the answers from a regular test prep activity together in a playful game format. Have kids award themselves a point for each answer they get right, and challenge them to reach a set number of points by the end of the month. Or have them play “Scoot”, where there’s one problem on a card at each student desk, which kids answer on their own sheet of paper. Every 30 seconds, they scoot one seat to the right and answer the question that’s on the desk they moved to. Scoot is so fun and kids love getting the chance to move around in between answering questions.

You can also pass out individual dry erase boards, and as you display each problem for the class to solve, have kids write the answer on their boards. They can hold the boards up for you to see and give immediate feedback on. There’s something about using markers and boards that makes even test prep more engaging for kids.

And if you have iPads in your classroom, students can use a free app like Show Me to record their work. Have them solve in the app, writing directly on the screen and recording the narration of how they solved. I like this strategy because it encourages kids to think deeply about the question and their own thinking: rather than rushing through 5 questions and just picking ABC or D, they’re getting to delve deeply into one specific question or strategy and explain their reasoning. Since this is just a practice activity, you don’t even have to have students submit the work to you for assessment: they can save it in their digital portfolio, or play it for a classmate and share strategies, then delete it.

Simple strategies like these keep you and your students from feeling overburdened with worksheets and make the test prep feel like more like the other, meaningful activities you do in class.

Ultimately, we teach students, not standards. Don’t wait for someone in your district or state to reiterate that: make it true in your daily practice.

Next week: How to keep from giving up on apathetic students (Ask Angela Anything)

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

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It’s been a whirlwind month of tips for enjoying teaching, with some of my favorite bloggers sharing 20 ways in 20 days. For those of you who have been following along since the beginning, I hope this was a great spring re-boot and the posts energized you for these last crucial (and challenging!) weeks of the school year.

20 ways in 20 days

I wanted to share a final round up of all the posts here with you, now that everything is complete. You can click through now to the tips that sound most interesting to you, or bookmark/pin this post and return to it later as you read UnshakeableYou can even turn this into an informal online book club: read a chapter a day and participate in the discussion in each blogger’s comment section.

Click on any of the images to read more:

Each of these tips is a chapter from my new book, Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What.  So, if you like the suggestions and practical tips you found in the 20 ways posts, you can find many, many more in the book.

The idea behind Unshakeable is that you don’t have to wait for teaching to become fun again. You can plan for it!

The book is a collection of inspiring mindset shifts and practical, teacher-tested ideas for getting more satisfaction from your job. It’s a set of practices to help you find your inner drive and an intrinsic motivation that no one can take away. It’s an approach that helps you incorporate a love of life into your teaching, and a love of teaching into your life. Learn how to tap into what makes teaching inherently rewarding and enjoy your work every day … no matter what.

Unshakeable is the new book by Angela Watson. Enjoy teaching every day, no matter what!

Get the book here

20 ways to enjoy teaching every day…no matter what

Pin this post for later

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Vicki Davis’ truth: The courage to speak out about injustice

April 19, 2015
vicki davis truth for teachers

EP 18: Don’t be afraid to make your voice heard and stand up for what’s best for kids. Listen and be inspired as teacher/author/speaker Vicki Davis of the Cool Cat Teacher blog challenges classroom teachers to speak with boldness and create change in our education system. Your voice is needed and you can make a […]

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How to use parent surveys to build connections with families

April 15, 2015
How to use parent surveys How to use parent surveys to build relationships & reflect on your practice

I have used 4 different types of parent surveys for many years in my classroom to help open the line of communication with my students’ parents. They have been really instrumental in helping me get feedback and make sure I’m meeting kids’ needs, and they’ve been an invaluable way to document my attempts at outreach. […]

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How to reconnect daily with the reasons why you teach

April 12, 2015
how to reconnect daily with the reasons why you teach

EP17: When the reality of teaching doesn’t match what you envisioned at the start of your career, it’s easy to lose sight of reason why you chose this profession. In this episode, I’ll share 3 specific strategies for reconnecting with your initial motivation and the inherently rewarding moments in education. Learn how to be truly […]

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5 questions I ask before buying into any “Common-Core aligned” product

April 8, 2015
how to tell if a product is ccss-aligned

You’d think this would be old news by now, right? I can’t think of an education company out there that doesn’t purport to have CCSS-aligned products. And yet just last month, EdWeek reported that 17 out of 20 math series that claimed to be aligned to Common Core still fail to live up to their […]

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Classroom clutter–what to keep and what to toss

April 5, 2015
classroom clutter

EP16: Is your classroom overflowing with stuff? Are you holding onto random materials and supplies “just in case” you need them one day? In this episode, you’ll hear how I was once forced to pare down my classroom to the most essential items, and the incredibly impact that had on my teaching. You’ll learn strategies for […]

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Share your authentic self to bring passion and energy to your teaching

April 1, 2015
1 Share your authentic self

Do you need an extra burst of encouragement and motivation this time of year? Each day from April 1-20, you can visit a different blogger who will be sharing actionable tips and strategies to help you enjoy teaching more. They’ll be writing about ideas from my new book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every […]

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How to figure out what’s “good enough” and be satisfied with it

March 29, 2015
how to figure out what

EP15: Do you feel constant guilt about not giving 110% to every aspect of your work? Do you worry that no matter how much you do, it’s never enough? Discover 3 strategies for breaking free from perfectionism, guilt, and obsession over minor details in your teaching practice. Learn how to identify an appropriate, healthy stopping place […]

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20 ways in 20 days: enjoy teaching…no matter what

March 26, 2015
20 education bloggers share their strategies for enjoying teaching every day, no matter what! Based on "Unshakeable," the new book by Angela Watson. #unshakeablebook

Has spring fever hit your school yet? If so, you’re not alone. April’s on its way, and it can be a tough month to stay motivated. There’s a long wait between spring break and Memorial Day, the testing crunch is often at its peak, and the promise of warmer weather is enough to make all of […]

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Big ideas and ed trends from the #ASCD15 conference

March 24, 2015
Big ideas and ed trends from the #ASCD15 conference

ASCD is one of the most important and influential conferences in the nation because it’s targeted toward school leaders and those who make big decisions in education. In addition to many, many teachers and teacher leaders in attendance, there are always huge numbers of superintendents, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, curriculum specialists, and district office members. […]

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Dave Burgess’ truth: Collaborating with colleagues who don’t support your creativity

March 22, 2015
dave burgess teach like a pirate

EP14: Have you ever shared a great teaching idea with a co-worker who immediately shot it down and discouraged you from thinking outside the box? Listen as Dave Burgess of “Teach Like a Pirate” fame shares how you can express your creativity even when co-planning with colleagues who are reluctant to innovate. Discover how collaboration […]

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The secrets of teaching we’re not supposed to admit

March 21, 2015
Unshakeable bonus materials

As I mentioned in a video earlier this week, there are a lot of things that classroom teachers face on a daily basis that it seems like no one is talking publicly about. These are challenges that feel insurmountable, and we’re not hearing solutions because no one is admitting there is a problem. Watch this […]

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20 ways to enjoy teaching every day…no matter what

March 19, 2015
FREE download: 20 ways to enjoy teaching every day no matter what

In yesterday’s video, I shared that I was inspired to write Unshakeable after talking to a group of teachers who really seemed to love teaching every single day. They had an incredible camaraderie and school morale was terrific.  But I couldn’t help wondering about the teachers like me—I rarely had the benefits of a positive, supportive […]

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Is it possible to enjoy teaching every day…no matter what?

March 18, 2015
Don’t wait for teaching to become fun again: plan for it! "Unshakeable" is the new book by Angela Watson.

Have you ever wondered why challenges are so much harder to face on certain days? Sometimes a criticism from a parent or principal put you in a bad mood for hours,  but other times, it rolls right off your back. Sometimes when kids are off-task and interrupting your lesson, it drives you absolutely bananas, but […]

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How to be unshakeable in your enthusiasm for teaching

March 15, 2015
How to be unshakeable in your enthusiasm for teaching

EP13: Passion cannot be faked. Students can tell when we’re just going through the motions. But how can you summon the energy to teach with passion when there are so many distractions from what really matters? And if you barely have time for taking care of yourself, how can you have anything left to give […]

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15 fun indoor recess games and activities

March 11, 2015
15 easy indoor recess ideas

If it’s not the bitter cold, ice, and snow keeping your class indoors for recess, it might be the rain that so many regions of the country get inundated with in the springtime. After a whole day trapped in the classroom, you and the kids desperately need some fresh air and unstructured break time. If you’re […]

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How to cope when a student’s parent just doesn’t like you

March 8, 2015
How to cope when a student

EP12: Are you feeling discouraged by a parent who seems impossible to please? You can develop a realistic, productive outlook on relationships with students’ parents. Learn how to maintain a professional and positive attitude and keep criticism from stealing your motivation. This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s […]

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A secret Facebook group for encouraging teachers

March 5, 2015
encouraging teachers facebook group

So obviously the group isn’t secret in the sense that no one knows about it. But there’s a setting for Facebook groups called “secret,” which means no one outside the group can read what’s posted there. And that means the Encouraging Teachers Facebook group is a private, closed space for sharing teaching ideas and collaborating. I […]

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6 reasons teachers should plan (now) for a summer vacation

March 3, 2015

Sure, you have a few unpaid weeks each summer in which you’re not technically required to work. But that doesn’t mean you’re actually using your summer break to relax. Between second jobs, professional development, lesson planning, and more…those summer weeks just fly by, and many of us return to work in the fall without feeling like […]

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