Monday, June 9, 2014

high stakes

At one point during a professional development workshop geared toward AP English Language teachers, my workshop leader noted that the external exam is a “high stakes test”. For him, this meant that the exam was designed so that most students would find it impossible to finish within the given time requirements. The students who do finish – and who do so well – are truly “exceptional” in their English skills. This in itself could be an entire blog, but instead I want to focus on the idea of high stakes in general.

I could simply apply the term high stakes to teaching because we are meant to accomplish so much within a short timeframe – just like the kids taking the dreaded AP exam. Teachers also feel the constriction of minutes per week x weeks, a formula that pushes against the ever-expanding list of skills and knowledge our students must learn. By the end of the year, I’m worn down from this pressure and from all the negative parts of teaching: watching students plagiarize, listening to grade complaints, organizing paperwork, chasing down lost books, policing the hallways, etc.

With such a stressful job, I sometimes lapse into cynicism, bemoaning the fact that our work is pointless. My former students still have issues in argumentation (our major focus), some continue to make poor personal decisions, many seem to dislike learning in general. Why work so many hours? Why put in so much effort?

And yet.*

We watched the class of 2014 graduate on Saturday. Last year’s graduation had little effect on me; it was my first year at the school and I only taught a handful of the students in yearbook. This year, however, I knew many of the seniors because of AP English and yearbook and other various interactions. Some students I knew very well, and respected as individuals and thinkers. Watching them step across the threshold to adulthood was such a cathartic moment. Woodstock seniors take part in this strange tradition – the wailing wall – in which they stand in a line and say goodbye to guests/teachers/each other. About 50 students in, I congratulated myself for my dry eyes and fortitude.

Then I got to some of the students I know best, and it destroyed me. I’m fairly sentimental, so it didn’t take much to tip me over the edge. When I got to the end of the (literal) line, Chris escorted me away from the wall as I hyperventilated and sobbed. Keep in mind: I am not a pretty crier. I looked so distraught that a G11 student came over to comfort me.

Anyhow, looking into the faces of so many accomplished students reminded me just how high the stakes are in this profession. No matter how small our impact on an individual student, we’re in the business of people –people who do actually notice our teaching and our efforts. This attention is both comforting and terrifying. While it’s nice to be noticed, the constant attention also means I have to work doubly hard to bring my best effort every day. So, yes, the stakes are high. Thankfully, unlike the AP exam, the rewards are enormous too.

*I realized after I posted this that I had this rhythm of "And yet" in my head because one of our students published a piece with this phrase woven throughout it. Here's to you, Setse Bush - your writing is in my head!*


  1. Beautifully said, Melanie.♥ See you soon, Aunt Bobbie

  2. I agree with Bobbie. I've been at the teaching coalface for 25 years now with younger children. I've been full of cynicism and bitterness at times, yet the work is so important that it cuts through all the crap in the end (at least it should). If I ever get to the point where I'm only bitter and can't see the things you mention out here, that's when I know I'll have to go. It's too important. The kids and young adults only get the one bite and the cherry and for some of them, that bite is the only thing that offers hope.