Growing up, I remember when my friends would tell me that they got paid $10 per A on their report cards. Some of their parents paid them on a scale, and even doled out $5 per B. Some of my friends were stacking up $80 every grading cycle, and I envied them for it. They were getting rewarded for something my parents expected of me.
Granted, I got paid too. But I only got $10 for the whole report card, and all 8 grades had to be As. I recognize that many children are not paid for their grades, and I’m speaking from a place of privilege as well, but I never understood the difference in pay scale that existed between my peers and me.
My parents always expected me to do my best, and in their definition of ‘best’, my best had to be the best. If I came home with a 92, my parents would inquire about the missing 8 points. Glass 8% empty kind of thing.
I’m not saying any of this to dog on them (hi, Mom and Dad). My parents are the most supportive people in my life, and they tell me they are proud of me on a weekly basis. Sometimes I feel they tell me they are proud of me just for breathing (sometimes that is enough).
It is also because they pushed me so hard that I am the person I am. I am eternally grateful for their blend of immense love and high standards. Not every child gets that.
When it comes to my life and my work as an adult, I often remember to keep my parents’ high bar, but just as often I forget to hold their deep pride for me. No one is harder on me than me. I beat myself up far easier than I celebrate myself. If I succeed in something, I feel the briefest sense of pride before I ask, “What’s next?” If I fail, however, I welcome an extended sense of shame that I will hold until another one comes along.
Next week my students are taking their state-mandated exam in English. As we prepare for the test, I relate to the anxiety they feel over these test scores that mean very little. I remember when I got my first B in college, and the resulting fear that I had lost some self-worth I would never get back.
I do my best to encourage them while giving them results on reviews and assessments and retests. If I give them a grade that is less than stellar, I try to remind them that this and any other number have no correlation to their value as humans.
But it is hard for us humans to not overburden ourselves with the weight of numbers or labels that society has told us are important. We are categorized in innumerable ways that mean almost nothing but are treated as everything. Who has truly learned how to overcome these boxes we are told to shrink and squeeze into?
I can write and talk about how state tests are unfair and biased, but I would be lying if I said the scores don’t worry me. If my kids don’t pass, they have to take the test again. If they don’t pass the second time, they go to summer school and take it a third time. Those promises I make about the test score not defining their value start to fall on deaf ears as self-doubt mounts in their minds.
Where is the peace for our troubled minds?
One of the ways I am preparing my students for the test is by having them look at the score for each individual standard from their benchmark. They may have received a 40 on the test, but perhaps they scored an 80 on poetry. That is something to celebrate. Now they can focus on nonfiction, where maybe their score brought the overall average down. It is a great way to take the pressure away from one big number to focus on small, attainable goals.
Last week a student brought a reassessment to me so that I could grade it and give him feedback. He scored a 40 on the assignment. I handed it back to him, and his shoulders slumped as he started to walk away. That shoulder slump resonated deeply with me.
But then, something else happened that caught me by surprise. Halfway through his first step back to his desk, he stopped, turned to me, and said, “Wait a minute. I got a 0 for this standard on the benchmark. This is a 40. That’s progress.” His shoulders were now straight, a smile coming across his face.
We high-fived, and he walked with pride back to his seat. It hit me hard. He hadn’t passed. He hadn’t reached his goal. But he got a little closer.
There are things I do as a teacher that will never show up on paper, and yet they are the greatest things I will ever do for my kids. I have mentored boys to speak with respect to girls and not make homophobic comments to one another. I have talked girls and boys through drama and breakups and all of the hard parts about being a middle schooler. I have spent time off taking my students to see movies and events that I knew would have a meaningful impact on them. I have loved them deeper than I thought possible.
Trust me when I say that I do not mention these moments as boasts. I forget that I do them all the time. I focus on the wrong parts of my day and remember my worst moments far more than my best.
They are moments that do not return an immediate impact. Sometimes I feel like I have repeated the same sentence to the same student for two years now, with no visible effect. But every day, every time I do the real work of a teacher, I need to remember that I am getting a little closer. When a student acts just a little bit better than yesterday, I need to say, “That’s progress,” and hold my shoulders high. There are small moments of progress every day, if we would just choose to look for them instead of moments of failure.
This year I started a project to send my poetry and music to anyone who was interested in reading, listening, and being my pen pal. One of my dear friends purchased a set of my greeting cards for her students to give to them before their state test. Yesterday I received a package from her that included one of the greeting cards, returned to me. The card reads, “You > Test Scores.” She reminded me that I am more than test scores too. She knows my heart, even though she is miles away. I am grateful for her.
Perhaps I am not writing you a personal letter, but I want you to know that you are more than test scores, more than labels, more than anything anyone could ever put into words. You are valuable beyond measure, and someone is immensely proud of you. If you can’t think of someone who is, perhaps that person should be you.
Your day should not be measured by the moments you failed; it should be measured by the times you picked yourself up and kept going. Your life should be measured by the immeasurable impact you have on others. It won’t come back as a number. It might not come back at all. The only indicator you will have is in the moments you remind yourself or someone else reminds you that you are worth so much more than what is expressible.
Earlier today, I texted my mom to tell her I will be performing my first hometown show in a few weeks. She texted back, “Proud of you!” with a lot of emojis. My first thought was, “Why?” I haven’t done anything yet. I might mess up. But then, I stopped myself mid-thought, turned around, and smiled. She was proud, and that was enough. I’m a little closer to something, and it feels like home.