There’s plenty of talk about standardized testing these days. Do they make kids too stressed? Do we test enough? Too much? Are they an accurate gauge of a teacher’s performance? Should the testing dates be spread out more or consolidated into fewer days? My answer to this as a former teacher and a current parent is…I have no idea. What I bring to the table is a discussion of the plight of a testing proctor.
For several years, I’ve volunteered to be present in a classroom while these standardized tests are administered. This job is in equal parts necessary and redundant, super easy and painfully boring. The proctor’s main job is to exist. That’s it. Sure, I’m supposed to walk around the classroom, help pass out testing material, dispense the occasional tissue, but mostly I’m there to prove that everything is legitimate. Nobody is trying anything shady, not that they would.
I’m not supposed to look at my phone or read a book. My eyes should always be scanning these kids as they work their way through reading passages or solving math problems. As the room grows deathly quiet, I inevitably get sleepy, so I decide to get up and move around a bit. In my quietest sneakers, I walk up and down the rows of desks, glancing at their booklets without really focusing on anything, just making sure they’re on the correct section and there are no stray marks. (Curse you, you ruinous stray marks! Who knew a light swipe of a #2 pencil could bring on such doom!)
After a few days of this, my mind begins to adapt to this change of pace. Like a prisoner in dark, solitary confinement, I look for anything to amuse myself: world maps and inspirational posters. I start cataloging facts, such as how many kids are left-handed and how many wear glasses and whose constant sniffing leads me to believe he suffers from pollen allergies and would benefit from a morning dose of Claritin.
Though I don’t know these kids, I begin to feel that I do. My heart presses me to wonder about them and root for them and pray for them. I try to give a reassuring smile to each student who might happen to look at me, hoping a friendly expression is encouraging.
Being a testing proctor isn’t a difficult job, but it does require a deceleration, a slowing down of productivity, a temporary devotion to almost monastic pursuits. I become jealous of the classroom teachers when they pull out the Clorox wipes and busy themselves with wiping down counters. At least they have something to do. I crave that kind of useful service.
Unrelated to the buzz you usually find around the debate about standardized testing, this annual activity is a reminder for me to be observant. I often forget how powerful the act of just watching can be. Noticing little things about people I barely know—like who has to bounce his leg up and down continuously to stay focused and who can’t stand when someone near her is bouncing his leg up and down—is like a window into their personalities. These observations are the beginning of understanding. To quote Sherlock Holmes, fiction’s keenest observer: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” I seek to do both.