There’s no getting around it—when you’re a teacher, stress is a daily part of the job. And when you’re a teacher during testing season, that pressure is multiplied. Your classroom schedule is thrown off; your established routines are out of whack. You and your students can feel like strangers in a strange land—off balance and out of touch with reality.
Testing season can bring out the worst in everyone—but it doesn’t have to if you plan ahead. Here’s some practical advice for beating seven common causes of stress so you can overcome the pressure during the dreaded “testing season.”
1. Take command.
Simply stated: Control what you can control. You can’t dictate the form or function of the test, but you have some control over how you respond to it. Start by getting yourself in the right frame of mind and taking care of yourself. Make time after school for physical activity. Eat right and get plenty of sleep. Take care of yourself and your students by being a calming presence in the room. At our school, teachers use yoga, chewing gum, and mints before testing to help calm anxiety.
After testing, have de-stressing activities planned for you and your students that allow for movement or expression. Activities that allow students to work with their hands or take control are great ways to balance a morning of sitting still and being quiet.
2. Set limits.
Testing itself is increased responsibility—especially if you’re an elementary school teacher testing multiple subjects. This is not the time to take on new projects, start new programs, or even begin a new diet. If you have a problem telling someone “no,” use the phrase “not now” or “maybe next week.” Also, share the load. Make time to debrief with colleagues or administration about ways staff can support one another and make the process smoother.
3. Trust in yourself.
You knew testing day was coming. Throughout the year, you’ve been preparing students for this day so they can show what they know. Will they make mistakes? Maybe. But once the test starts, it’s out of your hands. Trust in your students as they’ve trusted in you. It’s one test on one day. The outcome of the assessment does not reflect on your work ethic or self-worth. You know what your students know and what they are capable of every day.
4. Know your role.
High stakes testing brings its own set of regulations. Prepare yourself as you would prepare your students by knowing what you can and can’t do on testing day. Attend trainings offered by your administration and ask questions. Rearrange desks a week in advance—if only to make sure that you can move comfortably through the room during the assessment.
5. Establish two-way communication.
Two-way communication with students is crucial during this time. Students need to know the expectations and procedures for testing day. But perhaps more importantly, they need to know that you are a source of positive and supportive energy. Take time before the test to have a heart-to-heart with your students and give them a chance to ask questions. After testing, celebrate students’ effort and accomplishments. Give students time to reflect on their experiences and emotions. These conversations validate your students and give you feedback on how you can better prepare them next time.
6. Rally the troops.
Make time to talk to colleagues. Share battle stories about your experiences, but try to limit conversations to 10 minutes. It’s also important to take time to nurture your relationships with one another by talking about non-testing subjects like family or favorite TV shows. Our school administration has adopted the message of the book If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students. They bring in treats every morning of testing and leave gifts or tokens of appreciation on our desks, such as notepads, candy bars, pens, or uplifting messages. A little love goes a long way.
7. Optimize your working conditions.
Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Think about the things you can do within your classroom to ensure the best possible chance for students’ success. If you have a handful of chronically late students, try to provide input on scheduling. Ask to work with proctors that know you and your students. If you know a student needs to move every 15 minutes to stay focused, assign him or her to a desk in the back of the room and work out a hand signal for standing up.
Most importantly: Remember to be kind to yourself. You’ve done your job. This is time for you and your students to show off.