This week I’m addressing a question submitted by a teacher named Anna. She writes:
Hi, Angela, in your book Awakened, you mention how often our expectations steal the joy from teaching. Thoughts like “they’re supposed to do or know that already” can keep us stuck. This was a life-changing realization for me and really eye-opening. However, I’m still having a hard time letting go of my expectations when it comes to testing.
I mean, you teach students, you prepare them for tests and exams — *of course* you have some expectations around their performance, and begin to feel frustrated when they keep making the same mistakes over and over again. You may start questioning the purpose and the quality of your work: even though testing is not the end all be all, but still, it’s an indicator of students’ progress, and a teacher is there to help them improve their test results. So my question is, how can I let go of expectations around testing and results?
My husband — who was my fiancee back in my final years in the classroom — used to just dread the day those scores came back because he knew I’d be an emotional wreck. I think I cried every year when I got my third graders’ standardized test results back because whoever didn’t pass was going to be automatically retained.
That was a tremendous burden for any teacher to bear, to know that children were going to have to spend an extra year of their lives in the K-12 school system taking more multiple choice tests and having the love of learning just wrung right out of them, in part because of things that I did and didn’t do as a teacher. This guilt is one of the greatest stressors teachers feel, and whether they’re talking about it publicly or not, it’s very real.
So, I can’t give you any magic solutions that will remove that burden of responsibility altogether and somehow not make it sting when your students fail assessments. Not to be overly dramatic, but that’s kind of like promising I can make it not hurt when someone you love is seriously hurt. There’s going to be emotional trauma, guilt, and desperation. The only thing I can offer you is some mindset shifts that can lessen the burden a little bit.
I’m not going to lie. This was truly one of the hardest things for me to deal with as a teacher and I never quite got a handle on it.
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
Now let me elaborate a bit on what Anna referenced from my book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. The goal is to let go of unrealistic expectations and the rigid determination that we must have a certain outcome. That does not mean that we don’t have any expectations at all for students. Having expectations is a good thing. We train kids to follow rules and procedures and expect them to behave properly. We teach them and expect them to learn something. Those are reasonable norms. The only time our expectations create a problem is when we refuse to accept any other outcome.
We have to be open to every possibility. Expect students to meet learning goals but when they don’t, accept it and deal with it. Don’t cling to your expectations and repeat them over and over in your mind: They SHOULD be working harder! They HAVE TO master this right now, this very week! They’re SUPPOSED TO care about their education and pay attention! They’re SUPPOSED TO BE making progress at a much faster rate than this!
Holding on to your expectations — your pre-conceived notion of how things “should be” and how students are “supposed to score” on tests — creates fearfulness. It causes you to live in a constant state of low-grade anxiety as you worry about whether all these expectations will be met. Thinking so much about what you want to happen causes you to identify too closely with the anticipated outcome; you can’t let it go because it is a part of you.
Any other outcome becomes an attack on your beliefs about how students should learn and who you are as a teacher. The ultimate result is that you lose the ability to accept any reality except the actualization of what you expected. Rather than a failed test being a disappointing setback, it becomes a tragedy that puts you in a terrible mood for the rest of the day or week.
It’s important to examine your expectations and determine whether they serve you or weigh you down. If a particular expectation is only creating frustration and bitterness, you CANNOT hold on to it. Let go of your personal demands on the moment. Look forward to the future with optimism, but avoid having any specific expectations.
When you get up in the morning, tell yourself that you’re going to have a good day. You’re going to choose to be positive and productive and keep doing your best regardless of what effort your students put in or how well they master learning goals. Focus your anticipation on the things that are completely within your control, such as your attitude and behavior. Don’t run down a list of the outcomes you expect from students and their performance.
Then, when a few kids don’t pass a benchmark test, dismiss thoughts like, Here we go again, this test is impossible — it’s way too hard, and these kids are so far behind they’ll never catch up.
Instead, the instant you realize things are not happening according to your expectations, resist the urge to compare reality to your expectations. Tell yourself:
This is not the outcome I expected, but it’s alright. I’m not going to waste time thinking about what I wanted to happen, and instead, I’m going to focus on moving forward.
You want to reframe the situation so you don’t wallow in the setback. Get yourself right back on track mentally:
This was one test. I’m going to stay calm and not let students’ scores determine my attitude. I’m not going to allow a few kids who didn’t pass to upset me so much that I don’t have the patience and energy to keep giving my all with this class. The day is not ruined. Life is not over. I’m moving on to the next learning task and I’m ready for whatever comes next.
You see, this is ultimately about replacing our unrealistic expectations with more accurate ones. The goal is to think rationally. Rational thoughts line up with what you experience in the world. Irrational thoughts are based on what you believe the world should be like. Frustration occurs when you attempt to make reality conform to your beliefs about it. Since it’s impossible to make everything and everyone conform to your standards, attempting to do so invites negative emotions. It’s far easier to change your standards than to change the way everyone around you meets them.
We know that our school systems are placing irrational, unrealistic demands on teachers and kids. It is not rational to expect 100% of students to pass every single exam we give them. It’s not happening, ever. Anywhere on the planet. They make that the goal and put pressure on you and the kids to make it happen because it sounds terrible to say, “Let’s just try to get 75% of the kids reading at, hmm, let’s say, no more than one year below grade level.” In some communities, even THAT would be a stretch. Districts don’t want to look like they have low expectations for students. They have to set the bar high.
But you cannot internalize that expectation and allow your mood and sense of accomplishment to ride on it. You cannot.
You have to define success, value, and worth for yourself, regardless of how your students test. Go back to Season 1 episode 13 of the podcast–it’s called How to Be Unshakeable in Your Enthusiasm for Teaching. In that episode, I talked about how to create your own vision for your teaching and summarized the chapter about it in my book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day… No Matter What. You have to focus on YOUR vision. Do not internalize these irrational, unrealistic expectations and assume there is something wrong with you and your students if everyone’s not meeting them.
Let’s get a really big picture with this. Ask yourself:
- Why do I assume that not getting all kids to master all standards at the same time means there’s a problem with my students…or with me?
- Who says that if a student can’t master a skill by a certain month that something is developmentally wrong or that I’m not doing my job well?
- What expert mandated that all children must identify 10 letter sounds by the 6th month of their 5th year of life, or master place value to the one millions by age 10?
- If schools didn’t group students by age, would I worry so much about learning disabilities and students falling behind?
- What does it even mean to be “behind”?
- Is it possible that a child isn’t delayed or behind or below grade level, and maybe the truth is that they’re just not mastering artificial benchmarks determined by this committee of people at this place in the world at this point in history?
- Would this student have been labeled as “not meeting expectations” 20 years ago? Or even now in a different country?
- Would any of this even have been an issue if our school systems weren’t designed the way they are?
Think about these questions when you start getting really myopic and hyper-focused on a single test score. And most importantly, ask yourself:
- Could it be possible for me to stop obsessing over these artificial benchmarks and support each student in growing and developing at his or her own individual pace?
I don’t mean you should do this in practice–that you would throw your grade level standards out the window and let kids learn through play and their own interests, and master developmental markers whenever they’re ready. That’s a lot like unschooling, and some people do teach that way, but it’s not something the average educator can just up and do without permission.
I’m advising you to do this mentally – to stop obsessing over the artificial benchmarks and instead support each student in growing and developing at his or her own individual pace. I mean in your mind, stop internalizing unrealistic standards and start looking at the big picture.
Reframe the situation in a more rational, fully accurate, big-picture way so that it feels less stressful.
Reframe the thought that “I MUST get all my kids to pass the standardized tests. I can’t handle knowing that any of them failed!” with this perspective: “I would like for all my kids to pass the standardized tests and I’ll keep working toward that, but I cannot control that outcome. It would be disappointing if some of them didn’t meet proficiency, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure or that they didn’t learn anything in my class.”
Keep holding those high expectations for students, but don’t allow artificial benchmarks to determine your value as a teacher. Don’t let them determine your mood. Don’t let them steal your motivation. You are working miracles with those kids every single day in the classroom. And in your sense of self-worth, that has to be enough.