When I was a teenager it took me three tries to get my driver’s license. My first attempt involved a left turn on a red light, and my great-aunt’s Oldsmobile careening through an intersection as the test administrator shouted “Jesus Christ!” in the passenger seat. The second time, the instructor told me to put the car in reverse and back up along the sidewalk. Turning toward the back seat, I said a prayer and pressed the gas pedal, only to turn back around and realize that the car was on the other side of the street, the sidewalk now on my left.
Contrary to what the reader may think after reading these two accounts, the days of my driving tests were not the first times I had ever been behind the wheel of a vehicle. I had practiced this route every day for six months, my father coaching me on every turn, speed limit, and stop sign. He had taught me to press on the gas pedal as though there were an egg underneath it and my job was to prevent it from breaking. We had gone over this same route everyday after school for a month prior to the test. I knew full well that taking a left on a red light was practically a death wish, and I also knew how to back up the car with ease. So why, when that day came, did I suddenly blank out on the most basic rules of the road? Why, when the test administrator told me to back up, did I panic, hit the gas, and crash into the curb on the opposite side of the street?
Performance anxiety is a real experience, and one that I now blame for my catastrophic failure when I was sixteen. It happens to so many of us when we least expect it or want it--sweaty palms, gurgling stomachs, the sudden void in our minds where, just moments before, we had stored pages and pages of valuable information. My attempts at obtaining a driver’s license were two instances when this type of anxiety became most apparent, but I have experienced this phenomenon on several occasions--when people learn that I am an English teacher, ask me about my favorite book, and I suddenly feel like a caveman who can only mouth the words “Books? Books...good,” for example.
When I became a teacher and realized that I would be responsible for 130 eleven and twelve year-olds’ performance on a much talked-about state test, that same feeling of dread overwhelmed me. A slew of disastrous thoughts raced through my mind: What if my students fail? What if I fail again, except this time, 130 times? What will my colleagues think of me? What will the administration think of me? Parents? Students? I of myself?
For the first three years of my teaching career, such thoughts would play like a radio station from September to March. Every department meeting, copy room conversation, and corrected practice assignment fed into my anxieties. And I wasn’t alone. At the mention of the word “MCAS,” the classroom would become a cacophonous symphony of groans. Some of these sounds reflected the tedium of a three hour test to a sixth grader, but many of these reactions indicated the stress students felt when they were to read multiple selections, answer questions, and write several well-developed paragraphs in one sitting, on which they would receive a score between 200 and 280.
In an effort to change my response to the surmounting pressures that culminate for both myself and my students this month, I decided to take a different approach this year. Instead of regarding the month of March as “MCAS Month,” I decided to title this month “Mindful March.” Despite the rhetoric surrounding the topic of the standardization of education (and my personal thoughts on our emphasis on state tests--a talk for another day), performances of one kind or another are a part of life. Whether it’s a driving test, relay race at a championship swim meet, college final, or Bar exam, learning how to cope with performance anxiety is a valuable skill.
Using insight from Daniel Rechtschaffen, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Tish Jennings to name a few, I have started each class this month with a five-minute guided meditation, or as we call it in the classroom, “Quiet Time.” Incorporating technology into our practice, students have used Youtube videos and mobile apps to help aid them in becoming more mindful in their daily lives. We’ve read articles on the benefits of mindfulness to our well-being and completed graphic organizers that outline healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with stress. With each assignment and discussion, we have normalized the very experience that often causes us to withdraw, to believe--especially during adolescence--that we are the only people who feel this way, that for some reason, and despite the neurophysiological explanations we now have, we are strange, defective, or weak.
Instead of spending the last three weeks focused on the “drill and kill” I used to do at this time of year, I decided to use the upcoming state test as an opportunity to confront a fact of life--that there are times when we will be tested, and that preparing for these opportunities is not just about learning the elements of genre, the quadratic equation, or Chapter 190B, Article V of the Mass General Laws; it’s about learning how to focus on your breath, calm your body and mind, and tune into a different radio station than the one our minds tend to automatically play.
This past month, as I’ve watched many of my students sit in stillness and heard them reflect on this new approach, I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been very different had I learned such skills at a young age. Perhaps instead of drifting through the intersection in my family’s Oldsmobile at sixteen, I would have taken a deep breath and completed the test as if it had been any other sunny afternoon with my father.
Lindsey Neves is a full-time Middle School English Teacher in North Attleborough, MA. Lindsey is also a Freelance Writer, Editor, and SEL Advocate; she is an active member of the Social and Emotional Learning Alliance of Massachusetts (SAM)!