Q: I was reading about all of the obligations teachers have. The number of standardized tests you have to process is just crazy. And the paperwork (digital now, I suppose) that goes along with those tests, plus attendance, grades, notes home, updating websites, discipline reports, progress reports, emails, report cards, evaluation forms, all of it seems overwhelming. As a parent I’m concerned. How can you give my child the attention she deserves when so much of your attention is paid to these other things?
It’s difficult. And it takes time to learn how to manage, which is one reason why experience is so important in teaching. Let me tell you how I came to learn the secret.
I was blessed during my first few years as a teacher. In the English department at Laing Middle School I was surrounded by high-quality veterans. Dorothy Lancer was a model of great teaching. Millie See encouraged me to be creative in the classroom. Susan Dickinson gave me survival skills. Mary Ratliff was my go-to source for helping struggling students. And all the teachers, not just those in the English department, were supportive.
It was the final day of my first year of teaching, and I was spent. I had assumed that once you sent in your grades, your job was done for the summer. (Every teacher who ever lived is laughing their lungs out right now).
Nope. One great task still required was to record and file BSAP reports on every student. Apparently the students’ very lives depended on it. Don’t ask what BSAP stands for. The most important acronym in education at the time is now remembered by absolutely no one (cycle to be repeated).
I was flummoxed. I had spent most of my challenging first year getting bogged down by details and looking for a different line of work, and now, after 180 days, when I thought I had finally arrived at the bottom of Mount Everest, I discovered I still had to scale Mount Monadnock.
A fellow English teacher, Veronica McCloud, saw my disheartened face and told me to bring all my stuff to her classroom where she and another teacher would show me what to do. With a lot of laughter and guidance, they helped me get the job done.
What happened that day gave me new life and helped turn around my lagging enthusiasm for teaching. Mrs. McCloud showed me that recording BSAP reports was simply a task, not a mission. Scary education department memos had led me to believe that BSAP was everything. She helped me to see that it wasn’t. Teaching students, she said, was everything. We talked that day about a statistic we had heard that kids only remember 5 percent of everything they learn in middle school. “If that’s true,” she said (or something just like it), “then what you have to do is just love ‘em, laugh, don’t sweat the small stuff, and make your 5 percent count.”
It was career-changing advice. Making my 5 percent count meant I needed to aim for something higher. Of course it meant instilling the course essentials, but it also meant encouraging my students to be good, showing them how to make sound decisions, and teaching them to become high-character, independent adults.
I also learned that day that it’s okay to laugh when something’s absurd. I learned that when you work on trivial tasks together with other teachers, it breathes meaning into the time you’re being forced to expend on the forgettable 95 percent. More importantly, it helps keep that 95 percent in perspective.
Mrs. McCloud and my other colleagues were what I call “real.” I had been taught in college that the only acceptable attitude for a teacher was a Pollyanna acquiescence of everything the educational experts spouted. One wasn’t permitted to question, complain, or search for something better than the pre-established “best practices.” Of course I didn’t want to be a Negative Nelly who grouses about everything, but it seemed that somewhere in between the extremes there was a noble authenticity.
These veterans showed me that it was possible to be a teacher and still be yourself, that it was possible to treat the obstacles of teaching with critical thinking, balance, and even, when appropriate, levity. They were happy warriors who had mastered the art of putting things in perspective.
I don’t know if it’s a scientific statistic or not, but that 5 percent number has always stuck with me. “Make your 5 percent count,” I was encouraged. And that, I believe, is how teachers make sure they don’t lose sight of what’s truly important. They put the forgettable 95 percent in its proper place and do their best to zero in on the 5 percent that might stand the test of time.
And at the bright heart of that crucial 5 percent is your child, her classmates, and every other student that enters a teacher’s orbit.