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.

I Pledge

One of the first lengthy English paragraphs that our African-born son (sort of) memorized was the Pledge of Allegiance. All last schoolyear, his preschool teacher (me) recited it with the class each time we met.


Ezra’s rendition gets a little garbled in places. “And to the public, witches stand…” You get the idea. If you listen to the literal telling of it, a room full of 4-year olds may unintentionally pledge their allegiances to any number of things so don’t hold them to it.


Saying the Pledge is one of those activities that’s easy to do without a lot of meaning behind it. I can guarantee that Ezra couldn’t define many of the 31 words but he somehow understands the gravity of them. Before he and his brother and his dad start a basement soccer game, Ezra pauses and—in lieu of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—he puts his hand on his heart and says, “I peg legions to the flag…” before they start the soccer match.


This week Ezra took his Pledge skills to the next level. He was asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the school board meeting. Since Ezra became an official U.S. citizen this summer, this was an especially poignant moment for us. As the day progressed, he grew more nervous about his role in the evening meeting. I told him that if he would just get it started by saying, “I pledge…” then everyone there would join in and he could say just about anything for the remaining 29 words.


Ezra completed his assigned task, and we drove home to dive into an authentically American supper of Sloppy Joe sandwiches.


Our participation in the event brought up a lot of questions for Ezra: What’s a school board? (Um, they make decisions for our schools.) Why are their meetings on TV? (So people can watch it at home and see what they decide.) Why did you draw a star on my hand? (So you would remember which was your right hand when it was time to cover your heart.) And so on.


I’m guessing that when it comes to educating the kids in our city, there’s often more questions than answers: How do we improve the scores? How do we afford these programs? What’s best for these kids?


I am so grateful there are people willing to meet on a Tuesday night to make plans for our schools. I’m also grateful that Ezra receives this education freely offered to him. He has loving teachers and administrators who make school a wonderful place to be. Most of all, with this education he has opportunities and endless possibilities. Education helps society live up to the promise of liberty and justice for all.

First day of kindergarten

Sending your kindergartener to school for the first time can cause an overwhelming flood of emotions. Sad, because he’s growing up too fast. Happy, because he’s growing into a big kid. Worrying about how he’ll cope without you. Pride knowing he’s capable of so much more than you credit him for.


When my oldest children, twin girls, started kindergarten I was nervous. Those first kids are your guinea pigs, trial-and-error in the truest sense. How many times should I walk them in to their classrooms? Should I send juice or water in their lunches? How cute should I dress them for school?


When my older son went to kindergarten three years later, he had already been in the school building with me countless times. Those teachers who had been complete strangers when I had given my girls to them on their first day of school had now become my friends. Their elementary school was more familiar to me than just about any place in town. Dropping him off was much easier.


Then I had a break from elementary school life. For a whole year I had only middle school and high school kids. It’s a different perspective and different expectations. No more birthday snacks or hallway volunteer time. Upper school administrators don’t expect the same level of involvement and that was okay. Older kids have more responsibility for their school assignments so less is expected of parents (Can I hear an Amen?!).


But now I’m back. I took my youngest to kindergarten last week. And I survived.


Fortunately, our youngest son now attends the same elementary school his older siblings attended. The familiarity is at least there for me, if not for him.


I’ve had several people ask me how he’s doing in kindergarten. Since I’m not there and stalking isn’t encouraged, here’s the little I know: Other than the first day, he’s been walking in all by himself. (“Tell me how you get to your room,” I say outside the school door. “Left, left, left, right,” he answers.) On the first full day, he didn’t notice that he had forgotten his lunchbox in the classroom until he got to the cafeteria and had to run back to the room to get it. On the second full day, he banged his shin on a piece of playground equipment and got a big bump. Both his teacher and the school nurse called to let me know about it.


Our tough, little fella is doing it. He’s learning and making friends. He’s becoming just a little more of who he’s meant to be. When he gets in the car in the afternoon, he’s all smiles. I know a giant part of the success of these first few days is due to the adults who are loving and caring and teaching him while he’s away from me. They are the ones putting ice on his hurt leg and guiding him back down the hall to retrieve his lunchbox.


With this in mind, I have a favor to ask: Even if you don’t have a child in school, tell a teacher “thank you” today. These amazing educators leave a mark on their students that will stay with them forever. They give of themselves in a way most occupations would never dare ask of their employees. They invest in our nation’s greatest resources—our kids, our hope, our future.

Knowing your audience

I am privileged to spend five hours of most every Tuesday and Thursday with a group of 4- and 5-year olds. I teach preschool at our church and every day is different.

This is my favorite age of human beings. Most are young enough that they haven’t perfected the back talking (aka “Sass-Mouth”) but old enough to take care of bathroom stuff by themselves. It’s a time where anything seems possible for them. Their end of the year goals are things like learning the ABC’s (LMNOP or “ellen limo pea”?) and counting to 20 independently (13, 14, 15, 16 are the stumbling blocks that trip up many a preschooler) and tying their shoes…or at least getting them on the correct feet.

About 20 years ago, my first full-time teaching position was 4-year old kindergarten. I had no kids at home so those 15 students were my kids. There was Luke who tried to convince me that 4 ½ was older than 5 because it took longer to say. There was Seth who made it difficult to determine his dominant hand because he would write the first half of his name (S-E) with his left hand and then switch his pencil to write the second half (T-H) with his right. And I could never forget Hunter. He made up a song called “God Killed All the Dinosaurs” and sang it for the class, encouraging us to all jump in for the chorus.

I kept a Mason jar on my desk and I would add marbles to the jar when the class was especially well-behaved. A full jar bought them a popsicle party. After a drought of marble-adding I asked the class, “What kinds of things will get marbles for the jar?”

Hunter answered, “If we pick our nose but don’t eat the boogers?” I didn’t see that one coming.

Those students from my first class are grown now but my current class is still full of surprises, like yesterday when they pretended that the robot lacing cards were cell phones and they walked around our classroom looking for a place to charge them.

My job is still to figure out what in the world they’re talking about.

One day before Thanksgiving, when the weather was warm enough for outside recess, they ran out the door saying, “Let’s play T.J. Maxx!” How does one play a game inspired by a low-cost clothing and home goods retailer? Upon further inspection, I realized (okay…my kids told me) that there’s a TV show called P.J. Masks. Totally different.

In the first few weeks of school, I intervened in an argument about one student’s lunch item, a turkey roll-up sandwich. Here’s the dialogue:

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!”

Boy: “I know. It’s a burrito.”

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!!”

Boy: “I know! It’s a burrito!”

It escalated until I could get them understanding the other’s point of view. That’s when I had to say a few sentences I’ve never said before: “You are making her feel sad when you call her sandwich a burrito—which she pronounces ballerito. Please call her sandwich a turkey roll-up or don’t talk about her sandwich at all.” Phew. Everyone stand down. Crisis averted.

Trying to understand kids is often a lot more fun than trying to understand adults. Kids have agendas but they are normally: play more, nap less, eat candy. With adults, it’s usually more difficult to understand what pain or learned habits they’re accessing when they do something unexpected. Unfortunately, kids can also act and speak from a place of great pain but it seems different somehow.

My advice is to try what works for 4-year olds. Sit on the floor right next to them. Pull out a puzzle or read a book or have an imaginary tea party. Get eye-level and try to see things from their perspective, then things might clear up a bit.

Unless it’s Hunter. Then you’re on your own.

Thank a Teacher

Mrs. Brackett was my 4th grade teacher. She was, in every way, my favorite elementary school teacher. (She received this praise in part because my 3rd grade teacher was a screamer. She made me so nervous that I chewed on and eventually ingested those triangular, rubber pencil grips I bought from the school bookstore.)

Every week, Mrs. Brackett designated two students as Good Citizens. This distinction included a certificate and some kind of candy, like a Sugar Daddy or a handful of Now-or-Laters. She persuaded us to find information for ourselves. When we learned about evaporation, she told us we could set up our own experiments with Styrofoam cups of water all over the room. She was encouragement personified.

She was round and grandmotherly. She smiled easily. Her husband—a former Bozo the Clown from the 1960’s—played Santa Claus at the faculty Christmas parties my family always attended. They were a perfect pair.

By the time I was ready to declare my major in college, Mrs. Brackett had transferred to my university’s education department. She was assigned to be my faculty adviser. At my first appointment in her tiny office to discuss my schedule, she pulled out a ruler and a sharpened pencil. She created a spreadsheet on a piece of typing paper, mapping out my next four years in her precise cursive handwriting. When I told her I wasn’t very good at math so I didn’t want to take more than the math classes required for my major, she said, “Who told you that you aren’t good at math?” Mrs. Brackett saw potential everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.

With all of these memories, the thing I most remember about Mrs. Brackett was not her teaching style or how many book reports we had to write. What I remember most was the morning of January 28, 1986.

It was the birthday of a boy in my class named Matthew. We sat at our desks that morning to eat the cupcakes or cookies or Twinkies Matthew’s mother had sent in for a treat. Mrs. Brackett rolled a television cart into the room and turned on the set. A space shuttle was going to be sent off and she had decided to skip a portion of her lesson plan so we could watch it.

I’m sure a part of Mrs. Brackett’s fascination with this particular flight was due to the presence of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher chosen to join the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Maybe Mrs. Brackett had wished for just such an opportunity.

We counted down with the newscaster or NASA employee as he announced, “Lift off.” Then we watched as the space shuttle raced up into the heavens and exploded just minutes later. We were stunned, silent.

I wish I could remember exactly what Mrs. Brackett said. Maybe she didn’t say anything, at least not for a while. What I do remember was her presence and the comfort her presence gave, filling the room to replace the void the explosion created. She was there, feeling what we were feeling. Crying and trying to make sense of this sudden disaster.

This is what great teachers do. They inspire us. They get in the trenches with their students. They make them feel safe. Sometimes, they even lay down their lives for these children. If you’re a teacher, thank you. If you’re not a teacher, go find one and thank him or her today.