As a teacher for over two decades, I have seen the American public school system transform itself time and again. We have been trying to find the key to success and striving to prove worth through mandated tests, standardized curriculum and a focus on buzzwords like grit, rigor, gradual release and accountable talk. There is an urgency to whittle down student responses into test scores and test scores into data and data into action plans. There are countless meetings and spreadsheets and computerized tracking systems. All intended to hover, as a collective magic wand, over a faulty system.
But, what we refuse to see while we are waving our wands and jumping our hoops, is that until we see each child as unique individuals with unique needs and issues, we can wave our wands all we want. The results will always be the same: frustration.
We greet our students, at the start of the year, with two weeks full of standardized tests. They go from classroom to classroom, grab their number two pencils and start bubbling in the data. The tests are meant to measure what they do not know, so that their teachers can feed them knowledge and prove their teaching-merit by the end of the semester. But what message are we sending our kids on the first days of school, when we sit them down (hour after hour) and have them show us how much or how little they know? And what are we missing in the process of collecting so much data?
Until we truly know our students, all the data in the world will do nothing but appease a system that places numbers over the emotional needs of students. Don’t get me wrong, we may raise their test scores, but at what price? And what are we missing when we are hyper-focused on standardization? We are missing individuality and we are missing them.
And so, before the mandated testing I was required to give, I told my students I wanted to collect a different kind of data first. I asked each of them to write about their experience with school over the years. In the middle of their writing, I asked them to focus on the following prompt: what I wish my teachers knew about me. And what they told me, is more powerful than any testing measurement could communicate.
And this is what they said:
“I have never known the healthy love a child should know from a parent”
- I wish my teachers would know that my dad left me at age 12. Also, my brother and I never ever got a happy birthday. And on Christmas, by the time we get to my dad’s they would have already opened up the gifts without my brother and I. We would open gifts by ourselves. It hurts me so much not to see him. I wake up every day and text “good morning dad” and usually, there is no text back. I wish he knew I don’t get along with my step dad and I want a stronger connection with him. I often sit in class and get teary eyed when people talk about their dads. I would love to have someone to talk to and a shoulder to cry on.
- My life….is a whole different story. Growing up wasn’t so easy. I was by myself always. My mom would just forget about me. It would make me sad but I got used to it after awhile. I never had money or clothes. I wasn’t in school. I was gone for a while. I’m going to stop writing. This is making me sad.
- I’m a person you can talk to but when I vibe on people, and I know that they are not good, don’t talk to me. My life is confusing. I don’t know where I am going. I just want to make a family, happy, with no trouble. I have family, but they don’t love me like my friends. I constantly don’t know where I am standing, but my friends remind me where I do stand.
- My mom has a boyfriend and I don’t like him. He is really disrespectful to my mom. Not only does he disrespect her, he does it in front of her children. My father is in jail and I miss him.
- I don’t live with my parents, I live with my grandparents. My dad’s parents. I have lived with them basically my whole life. I lived with my mom for a couple of years, but my dad just got out of prison like a year ago. He was barely in my life. He’s trying to be but he went to jail when I was 7 years old.
- I just want to start over and go in reverse and make my dad proud of me like my brother did when he graduated. I am not pleased with myself or my grades and my attitude toward school. I just want to pass and make my dad care about me and help me and ask me what’s wrong when I just sit in my room and watch videos.
Some of these students will try desperately to impress you as their teacher. They will look up to you and need your acceptance. And usually, if they feel your acknowledgement, these are the kids who will make it. For others, it will feel like it is too late. They don’t trust adults. They may even become oppositional if they feel that you are mirroring the behavior of a parent who yelled at them, ignored them or left them behind.
And in order to vent their rage (if their rage has not already turned into depression) they will challenge you. So, imagine, if we as teachers react to a defiant student by demeaning them in front of others, ignoring them when they put their head down to fall asleep or kicking them out into the hall day after day. Imagine the sadness and pain we are inadvertently tapping into.
“I feel judged based on my family”
- I don’t have any good sibling role models in my life. Two of them are high school dropouts and one other sister doesn’t live with us anymore. I haven’t seen her in almost 8 years.
- Sometimes, when I finally get home from school, I hear my mom talking to my sisters, telling them to fix the problems they’ve gotten into. Maybe that’s why my mom is so over-protective of me. She doesn’t want me to make the same mistake they made. 2 of my 3 sisters got pregnant during high school. One at 16. The other at 17. She was so close to graduating. She had 4 months left of her senior year. I will probably be the first person in my family to go to college.
- I am passionate about my education. I will do anything to get good grades. I wish my teachers would see that I want an education and I want to be successful so that I am nothing like my family. I want to prove so many people wrong about me.
- I just want to succeed. My parents had my sister at 19, and me 17 months later. My dad was an alcoholic and, because of me and my sister, my mom couldn’t go to college. My parents divorced pretty much after I was born. I don’t want to end up like them. Don’t get me wrong, I love them very much, but I want to go to college and I don’t want to have to struggle like they do for money.
- I think teachers see me as just the behaved kid next to the bad kids or the ‘mouthers.’ I want teachers to look at me and see me. I am respectful, kind and outgoing at times, but also low-key. I am nothing like my brother, the valedictorian two years ago, and I hate being compared to him.
For these students, being seen for their individuality is of utmost importance. They desperately want to be seen for who they are, not for what others expect them to be. And, they hate being compared. So, imagine what it must feel like, seeing themselves represented on bar graphs and pie charts alongside other students. There is no pie chart that measures their resilience and fortitude. No pie chart that represents their true knowledge and potential.
“I struggle with anxiety and depression”
- I have an anxiety disorder and my face will turn beet red if it is really bad. I have insomnia. I was sexually assaulted a year ago and at random times I get flashbacks. I will have an immediate mood change. Sometimes I will break down, sometimes I will be irritable. My parents are in the middle of a custody fight.
- If a teacher calls on me, I usually say, ‘I don’t know’ even if I do. I am afraid to give them answers. If they yell at me, I get so nervous and my tears start to come. When I was little I went through a situation that I don’t want to be in anymore. That’s why I don’t talk to many people. I am afraid to talk to them. What if they yell at me?
- I wish my teachers knew I dont have the easiest life at home. I have five (soon to be six) younger siblings, I have divorced parents and an abusive father. I have major problems with anxiety and depression. I try to give the impression I am always happy, but I’m not.
- Through everyone’s eyes, I’m the smart kid. When commended on my work, it’s hard not to brag, but when someone does better than me, I kind of….shrink. Not many people know I’m lonely, depressed and anxious. I know I’m suffering from depression and anxiety as well as being bi-polar. I’ve made the most of my best friends online and I kinda lose the will to make real ones.
- Little things get to me. Like the quote “I feel like I’m suffocating and no one can see me dying.” I’ll act like I am okay, but deep inside at times I am not.
- I wish my teachers knew that I have bad depression and anxiety. When I need to go to the office, I have to go right away, as I am diabetic. They give me water and a snack. But this guy keeps bullying me and taking it. I don’t speak unless I am fully comfortable, but I am almost there.
We have students in our classrooms who have suffered trauma. And anyone who has studied the effects of trauma on the brain, knows that (unless thorough therapy is given) a student’s learning can be greatly affected. Add in the research we know about the teenage brain and the repercussions are staggering. To assume that these kids can sit in our classrooms and show the same ‘grit’ and ‘growth mindest’ and ‘adaptability’ that other kids might show is dismissive.
That does not mean that we should not try to teach these terms and instill these ideologies, my district does a wonderful job with introducing these concepts to our kids. However, if we are not, at the same time, offering counseling, therapy or other outlets for their anxiety, we can throw the word grit at them all we want. It will fall flat.
“I am an introvert and struggle with shyness”
- I am very shy and I really hate speaking in front of class. I just hate it. Every time I have to stand in front of class I just panic. In middle school we had to speak in front of English class all the time and I couldn’t do it. It is the only reason I did not have a 4.0. I’m not an American citizen and I am still learning English. My English is not as good as other people’s. I really hate talking in front of others.
- I wish my teachers knew that I have ADHD. I start to get tired because of it. I like to work alone so that I can keep it under control.
- I wish some teachers knew I am between homes and I don’t have the materials to type a paper and print. I wish they knew I can’t focus on work outside of school. I wish they knew how much sleep I get compared with how much I should be getting. I wish teachers knew not everything is explained as much as I need it to be. I wish they knew that presentations aren’t as easy for us as it is for them. I wish they knew it is hard for me to be around other students.
- I get frustrated when teachers try to make you have new partners everyday. Some people you just can’t work with.
- I have almost crippling social anxiety. It gets so bad sometimes that I can puke in front of people. It is constantly there. The thought of talking in front of class or reading out loud makes me want to cry. When I tell teachers this, they usually just brush it off as me just being a little nervous. But it is so much more than that.
Imagine what it feels like to these students, then, when they are faced with mandated assignments that require them to work in groups or to speak in front of the class. The new push in education is the notion of group work. Teachers are encouraged, and more and more required, to force students to work with other classmates. Although the concept behind this is valid, we want our students to be able to communicate effectively with others, we ignore the introverts in our rooms.
For some of our students, the only safe space they have is the space within our classrooms. To ask a student who is faced with social anxiety, to work with kids who have no idea what anxiety even means, can be terrifying. Of course, as the teacher, we can try to train and prepare our students to interact in appropriate ways with their classmates. And this is relatively easy if all of our students come from safe, loving and predictable homes. But what if they are coming to us from chaos?
Can we teach all of our kids to treat others with kindness, empathy, patience and respect? We would certainly hope so. But, when asking some of our more anxious and introverted students to work with students that make them uncomfortable, we are asking them to take on a task that they did not sign up for. We are also putting a lot of pressure on our more advanced students to constantly serve as role model for students that may struggle in school. But is this fair? Did they ask for this responsibility? Some students will relish it and step up to the task. But others dread it and wish that they could just, for once, focus on themselves and their education.
There are times when all a kid needs is a gentle push when it comes to working with others. And often, that is secretly what they long for, that gentle nudge:
- The reason I always work alone is because I am lonely, but I don’t know anyone here.
- I am not very talkative and am very shy, but I really like to work with other people. The reason why is if I don’t understand a question, I can ask a group member to help me. I don’t like being alone.
There is no doubt that there is merit in asking kids to communicate and cooperate in groups. But when we regulate and mandate this activity, we are ignoring the fact that our society functions with both introverts and extroverts in a successful way. There are some jobs that absolutely demand cooperative group work. But there are just as many that demand individual work. There is no standardized formula for success in the adult work world, yet we prepare our students by using these standardized formulas throughout their education.
“I have anger and behavior issues.”
- I wish teachers knew I’m a good kid, I just get angry fast. If you are asking me to talk to you when I am upset, I’m not being disrespectful, I’m just asking you not to talk to me when I am out of control. I will come to you when I have cooled off. I have cheer practice every night, so if I don’t get my homework done, you best believe I will have it the next day.
- I can get mad easily. If I get blamed for something I didn’t do, or if you say something wrong to me and I think you are serious, I can get mad and fire back. I don’t like sarcasm. My facial expression can look like I am super mad, but that’s just what I look like. No emotion. It’s just a thing from football and wrestling.
- When teachers call me out in a rude way, I will catch an attitude. I can have major anger problems. If you disrespect me, I will never like you again.
- There is a serious and angry side to me that I don’t let people see. I don’t like myself when I am angry. I am a completely different person. I get so full of emotion that I start to cry. If I’m uncomfortable, I just react. Especially if I feel disrespected. I refuse to be disrespected by anyone. But, on the other side, I am sweet and nervous and just have so much in my mind that I don’t get to express. Please have patience with me.
- If I smile or laugh when I am getting in trouble, it is because I am uncomfortable. I can’t help it. I’m working on it, but it’s hard.
- I have a bright heart. I may goof off sometimes, but I really love being comfortable with my teachers. I love books. It’s like a movie in my head. There’s nothing I love more than knowing I’m succeeding. All my life, I have goofed off in school. Last year, I hung around the wrong people and that landed me in an alternative school. I will now not graduate with my class because of my bad decisions.
- I’m a very good kid, but if I’m mad, I don’t really like to be talked to. Teachers think i’m being disrespectful. I work hard in class for my mom and if I am slipping in a class a simple, “check yourself” is better than yelling because I take yelling as disrespect and I probably won’t listen if I feel disrespected.
- I have a really hard time focusing. Sometimes, I will just blank out and sometimes I will daydream. Other times, I have the urge to talk, but not always to someone else. If teachers knew that, maybe I wouldn’t get into trouble so much.
It happens time and time again. A student gets upset or out of control and, instead of diffusing the situation, the teacher lights a match and throws it right into the gasoline. We are the adults in the classroom and, as the adults, we must control our emotions. No matter how mean, rude or disrespectful a student is to us, coming at them in the same way will only escalate an out-of-control situation.
We have to have empathy in understanding where anger-issues stem from. For some of these kids, it comes from trauma. For others, it comes from mirroring what they see at home. For others, it may be chemical. Regardless, a student cannot learn if they are marinating in anger. We must, as the professionals in the classroom, help to diffuse their tensions and help them to focus.
This does not mean that we allow an out-of-control student to affect our classroom or other students. Sometimes, the only choice is to separate an angry student. In a perfect world, instead of an in-house suspension room or ‘holding’ room, we would have a meditation room. We would have a staff of trained counselors or therapists on hand. Instead of two-week out-of-school suspensions, something they receive for getting into fights, sexual misbehavior or drug offenses, we should require our students to come to school.
Imagine, instead of two weeks at home playing video games in isolation, if instead oppositional students were offered a two-week intensive course on breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation, anger management and coping strategies. Do we want to punish our students, or do we want to solve the problem? All the data in the world will not lift a student, or their grade, if all we do is pass them down the pipeline of punishment.
“Someone in my home is dealing with disease and illness.”
- My mom has lupus and I constantly worry about her. I start to worry too much about school. I bottle up my emotions so much that I never ask for help. I also have depression, so I think too much at school to the point I get lost. I tap my pencil when I am nervous. I panic when a teacher calls my name and I stumble on my words. I can barely do a presentation in class without freaking out over it for the entire week before. I never talk in class. My music is the only thing that makes me feel calm.I just wish that, for just one day, school and life wouldn’t make me stress out more than a teenager really should.
- I might come into the classroom stressed and that is because of my mom. It’s not her fault but she has a disease and she can’t do things like she used to. Sometimes I feel terrible because most of the times I am not around to help her during the day. It makes me feel like a horrible daughter. I want to accomplish my dreams so that my mother doesn’t have to worry about me when she passes on.
- My family feels like it is split apart. They were in a horrible motorcycle accident and my mom can no longer walk. As the oldest in the house, I have a lot of responsibilities. I cook, clean, take care of the kids, go to school and still manage to help my mom try to learn to walk again. I seem very happy on the outside, but on the inside I am not that confident in myself. I always have so much energy because I feel like it covers up what I am feeling.
Imagine going from class to class each day, your brain struggling to retain a foreign language, complicated algebraic formulas, scientific terminology and history timelines, when your mind keeps thinking of a wounded or ill loved one. As adults, if one of our closest loved ones was in distress, we could ask for time off, we could leave work early to check on them, we could use the family-leave act to be able to assist them. But kids are not given that luxury. Kids are expected to come to school with the weight of the world on their shoulders. As teachers, are we adding to that weight when we should be helping them carry the burden?
“I feel stupid.”
- I think it’s crazy that we get letters that tell us if we are dumb or smart. I hide my grades when I fail, but when I pass I feel like king of the world. I feel like no one will never understand me. I can’t spill my heart to someone unless they show me I can. If I can’t trust you, I won’t talk to you. I am hurt inside 24/7. All the time. And I think I am like that because I can’t let it go. I act all crazy and hype to keep from crying. Once I break my shell, I know I will make it. I’m just not there yet.
- I wish my teachers would see me as smart or something other than the dumb kid.
- I’m scared of being stuck in high school and that I am going to live with my parents. I wish people knew I have a brain. Sometimes I think they think I don’t have feelings. I have goals, feelings, a brain. I’m just like everyone else. I want to be treated like everyone else.
- I’m so disappointed in my grades. I just hope there is a way to improve. It causes me so much stress that I can’t seem to overcome. Bad grades make me feel dumb and that I am messing up to the point of being a failure. I hate this feeling of not achieving my goals.
- I would like teachers to know that I am brighter than most of them assume.
- I wish my teachers would know that it’s not that I don’t like to learn, it’s the fact that I have a hard time learning if all I do is homework and packets in class. The stress never gives me time to enjoy my learning or take it all in. I like when my teachers sit in front of the class and actually talk to us and teach us. I really like to learn, not do homework. That just stresses me out.
- According to the Mensa IQ test, I have an IQ of 114. This is one point under superior intelligence. I’m already failing almost all of my classes.
- I really want my teachers to know that I am actually a really good student. I just happen to make bad decisions sometimes. In middle school, I literally hated going to school each day. I barely learned last year. Just got in trouble every day. I wish teachers would give me a reason to take school seriously.
- I wish my teacher would see how hard I try. When I get home from school, I don’t do anything. Just go to my room and do homework or research to help me learn English. I work so hard, but only get a B. I really wanna cry when I see my grade like that.
- I hate taking my meds. But I am getting better at it because I have ADD and ADHD. So, when I’m out of control just know that I might have forgotten to take them. I hate doing homework because I just usually ace the test. I hate when a teacher makes me feel slow.
- I wish my teachers knew I really do want to do my best, but I can only do that if I feel confident in what I’m actually being taught. Teachers that lead constantly out of a textbook don’t make me feel confident. Making things fun for students helps the learning stick. Listening to a monotone teacher all hour is not what any student wants to do. I want my teacher to want me to be at my best.
Imagine for a moment, that you are one of these students. You come to high school, hoping for success, and are met with test after test that showcases how little you know. You would be tempted to feel that the test reflects your own inadequacy. As teachers, we can take the time to explain that this is not the case and that the tests are not a reflection of them, but many of us don’t take that time. And for students who have consistently felt ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ the message these tests send can be quite harmful.
There are students in our rooms who fear testing, who have never tested well and who see school as nothing but a never-ending stream of bad grades. We must balance out our testing with compassion. We must look at our students and notice when we see the stress in their eyes. And we must do something to decrease their anxiety. Study after study shows that an anxious student can not learn as easily as a relaxed and comfortable student can.
“I feel overwhelmed”
- I hide my stress with a smile. I won’t hurt people or ruin their day. I have trouble with talking to people about how I feel. So I just act happy, but on the inside I am really stressed out.
- I wish teachers could see how my life actually is on a daily basis and see what I go through every day of my life. It’s not easy being me at all and it’s as if no one seems to care.
- I talk all the time, bored or not. I’m the only boy in the house and I have a lot of responsibilities helping my mom. I have to be a man at home, so I can act like a kid at school. I hide my pain by smiling and laughing with my friends at school.
- I have aspergers. To explain me I will use three words: anxious, playful and loving. My anxiety goes from top to bottom, meaning I worry about graduating, spiritual relationships and my view of me from others. I like to play video games or maybe try to tell a joke. I’m a lover, not a fighter. This is because I enjoy being a gentleman and don’t like having enemies.
- I think of school like I think of football, like getting out there, stopping the other team from scoring is like stopping the bad grades from popping up on my report card. I get irritated with life when it gets difficult. I have so much homework, but on Thursday night, I just let it all out on the field. It will pay off in the end.
- I wish teachers knew how overwhelming homework can be. I have 3 hour practices every day besides Sunday. I attend daily mass and I’m in a youth group. There are times I have to stay up until 3am just to keep up with my work. I just wish that teachers knew we have lives just as much as they do. When adults can’t comprehend that, it adds such frustration.
- I’m a kind soul and focus too much on other people’s happiness over my own.
- I can’t learn from packets. When someone just hands me a packet and waits for me to finish it, I get frustrated and don’t feel like I am learning.
- I overthink too much and I can’t hide my emotions if I am stressed out.
- I love drawing. I draw when I’m bored, when I’m mad, when I’m stressed.
- I watch my niece after school. It can be fun but frustrating. I don’t talk in class sometimes because I be tired all the time. When I’m on the football field, it feels like I am a whole new person.
- I wish teachers knew I babysit all of the time. Weekends get a little hard because I’m always with my grandma and grandpa. School weeks suck because I have homework and I have to babysit my cousins after school. I love them to death but they are really out of control and I can’t concentrate.
- I am a big sister to an 8 year old third grader and the daughter of a nurse that works all the time. I am trying my hardest to do this but it is tiring. I may look mean or grumpy but I’m not, it’s a look of work and concentration. Just talk to me if you have a question and please do not be rude and give me an attitude.
- Last year I made a promise to myself that this year my grades would be strong, but look what happened. They’re right back to how they were. I try to get my work in on time, but there is so much in each class. I wish teachers gave us a day or two to get work done. I can’t do a 7-page packet in just a day. Maybe they just don’t care? I am so upset that I already have an E.
- My motto is “if you haven’t felt like quitting, your dreams aren’t big enough.” I take my classes very seriously, but when i’m confused or frustrated, I will sit there and ask myself what is going on. It’s a sinking feeling when you know you are on your own. My work and learning is my entire goal in life.
The mandated assignments, the standardized testing and the pre-packaged buzzwords of public education are here to stay. They have some merit, if used mindfully. But if we do not take the time to truly know our students and to truly understand what their reality is, all the assessments, tests and data charts will show us nothing. We can argue that it is not a teacher’s role to worry about the emotional state of students; a teacher is meant to address the mind. Parents should be addressing their emotions. But that attitude will keep us exactly where we are, with frustrated teachers and students facing the overwhelming pressure of raising scores that just don’t seem to budge.
However, understanding that a student’s emotional state directly affects his or her ability to learn in the classroom might raise our test scores (the all-important focus that is tied to funding) more than any magic-wand of testing and evaluation ever could. And more importantly, it might show our students a glimpse of a future where they are no longer defined by their parents, by their traumas, by their anxieties or by a test score. They are seen for the unique, bright and capable young adult that they are.
They are seen.