A Week for Tears

Being a teacher puts you in weird situations pretty frequently. Just the other day I found myself having to explain why I was not going to explain what circumcision was. Then I had to explain why they weren’t allowed to look it up over the school’s WiFi without explaining what it was that they were going to find. At that point they realized it must be something bad which only increased their desire to know.

“Ok, it’s when they cut skin off of your penis.” Goddammit, I thought.

Blank stares were followed by shrieks and pandemonium as the kids conducted image searches for circumcised penises on their various devices. The situation was only exacerbated by little Jonathan announcing to the class that he was circumcised because he was Jewish. I’m still surprised by how much commotion seven kids can make.

Next year I will avoid teaching the root word circum regardless of it’s cross-curricular relevance.

Nothing really prepares you for days like that but, over time, you get used to handling the daily insanity. Tears aren’t quite as easy. I hate seeing people cry and it sticks with me for days. Thankfully, crying isn’t that common among high school students. At least not publicly. There’s too much at stake to be seen crying by classmates; they’ll put that shit on Facebook and ruin your whole week. That’s why this past week stands out: I have observed crying on three separate occasions. A year’s worth of tears in a single day.

It’s a state exam week. Students are taking tests called End of Course Tests which account for 20% of their grade in my class. I don’t write the test. I don’t know what’s going to be on the test. I’ve written about testing plenty of times so I won’t go back into detail. It suffices to say only that students whose global language skills average out to be about the same as a 1st grader have no business taking a 9th grade language arts End of Course Test.

The exam week is traumatic for another reason too, the kids schedules are changed. Their classrooms are moved. They don’t take tests with teachers familiar to them (because we’d cheat). It’s a real bitch for Special Education students who thrive when they have routines in place.

The first tears belonged to Mandi, a recent transfer from out of state. Mandi has cerebral palsy, walks with a limp, and has huge memory issues. She was crying at my door because she’d been wandering around the school looking for her class for an hour. She was supposed to be testing but could not find the classroom where she had been assigned to test. Since she was an hour late, Mandi would have to make up the test at a later date or take a zero. Later that week, she suffered from a seizure in the middle of her math End of Course Test. I guess she’ll have to make up that one too.

Two days later, the next set of tears belonged to Palma. It’s been a rough year for Palma. She was the first student back in my classroom after finishing the End of Course Test for my class and she was sobbing.

“Are you alright? Did something happen?”

“I didn’t know it,” she heaved through her sobs, “I just clicked to the end.”

Goddammit, I thought.

“You know, last year, I had a girl only get one question right on the whole test and she still got a 51%,” I explained, trying to comfort her.

“I didn’t answer any,” and the tears came back full force.

The third set of tears belonged to a coworker. I definitely was not prepared for that. I was returning to the “Secure Testing Distribution/Collection Location” after finishing my shift as proctor to sign off chain of custody for the tests. When I opened the door, Dr. Melody, our volunteer testing coordinator, turned to look at me and tears were pouring down her face.

She whispered, “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be. What’s up? Can I help?”

“No. I saw the tests. They’re all going to fail it. I didn’t teach anything on these.”

Dr. Melody is a Special Education math teacher and is generally regarded as the best among us. Seeing her cry is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. She wasn’t crying for herself. How could she know which of the myriad principles, formulas, and skills the test takers would choose? Math, especially, has had a hard time in recent years because Georgia has had three different math curricula in six years. The kids, especially our kids, have huge gaps in their knowledge. Dr. Melody was crying for them. She understood, as I now do, that these kids are used to failure. Her sin was to have them expect success. The test crushed them and the thought of these kids looking at the test and not knowing how to do any of it was crushing her.

Next week is another testing week. Not content with one week completely wasted, End of Course Tests now occupy two whole weeks of instructional time.


Cross posted from Forms of Inquiry.