Get out of the pressure cooker!

“It hurts students to accept sloppy or incomplete work, so give it back and release yourself from the pressure of deadlines.” Power of ICU – Dr. Jayson Nave and Danny Hill

Guadalupe’s story

On the first day of school last year I had a quiet, shy girl approach me.  Guadalupe (her chosen Spanish name) was in one of my sections of Spanish 2 and she asked if we could talk.  She let me know that she didn’t feel she could ‘hack it’ at level 2 and wanted to move down.  This is a frequent occurrence during the first week of school as I have high school freshmen and many get overwhelmed rapidly.  As I normally do, I asked her to stay for two weeks, let me really see where her readiness level was, and to relax!  Beginning high school is a daunting task, and many times after a few weeks things calm down.

Over the next two weeks, I informally assessed her level of proficiency with the activities we did in class.  She was appropriately placed, but definitely lacked confidence.  I spoke with her and let her know I felt she could do the work and that she should stay.  By that time, Guadalupe had made a few friends in the class and reluctantly agreed.

Things got better for Guadalupe, she was practicing her skills in Spanish and found that her readiness was very similar to other students in the class.  She was growing, improving, and gaining confidence.


We had an assessment to complete – students had to record themselves speaking in Spanish, an assignment that generally evokes fear in the language classroom.  She had practiced in class, so I gave her the iPod to record herself and off she went.  I was roaming the classroom while she recorded, helping other students and giving feedback…when I saw it.  Guadalupe was staring down at her palm where obviously she had written what she wanted to say.

I had a decision to make – do I react to this, get upset with her, and dole out some harsh consequence, or do I take a deep breath, walk over there, and talk with her about it.  It may sound like an easy decision, but if you teach you know how hard it is not to be upset when you see a student cheating.  You are disappointed, angry, and hurt.  You feel like the trust between you and that student is broken.  I had to decide who was going to be in the pressure cooker, me or her.  Was it I or she who needed to learn from this?  Turns out it was both.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her.  I got down on her level and spoke quietly.  I asked her what she had done to practice and why she didn’t come talk with me about feeling unprepared.  I reminded her that learning was more important than a due date.  She was embarrassed, sad, and expecting punishment.  I am sure by her reaction to me that behavior similar to this was punished with zeroes in the past.  I told her to go home, practice, and let me know when she was ready to reassess.  I explained I didn’t have any evidence of learning until she did this.  She was shocked, thanked me, and left for the day.  I exhaled.

The next week, Guadalupe came in and recorded her speaking.  I eagerly listened to it and discovered she had really worked hard to improve and feel ready.  We had done it!  We had taken a bad situation and turned it into a learning experience.  This was pivotal for me as a teacher and for her as a student.  Over the rest of the year she worked very diligently in my classroom in part because of the relationship we had built.

I learned so much from this experience… I will never put myself in the pressure cooker again about accepting inadequate or incomplete student work.  It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.

15 thoughts on “Get out of the pressure cooker!

  1. I’m the opposite. I have always had a very hard time penalizing a student for cheating, b/c I know he/she is not likely the only one doing it and it seems like a cruel lottery to dole out a consequence for what is probably just an unlucky glance or observation from me at the wrong time. And I know the pressure some of these kids are under to be in 5 extracurriculars, have a job and land in the top 10% of their class.

    As a result, cheating has become fairly common in my classes and it’s very difficult to reel it back in without seeming arbitrary, authoritarian and unfair. This post gives very good advice, but be careful not to let things get out of control.

  2. Thought provoking post. It is definitely easier to drop in a zero than to really determine whether the child has learned the material and why they are choosing to cheat. In many ways, that practice simply lets the student off the hook. One key I read in your approach is that you had built a positive relationship with the student that allowed for an open and honest interaction.

  3. Garnet,

    Awesome post! And as you said, that choice is not an easy one to make, especially if you worry about appearing “fair” to the other students. It’s very easy to give a zero and move on, but easy is not best, especially in this case. A zero never teaches responsibility. Putting a student in a hole doesn’t teach them how to get out of one. I am sure that this young lady learned way more about responsibility and hard work than she would have by receiving a zero. A zero also tells a student that this assignment and the learning associated with it is not important and can be skipped. This is never a message that I want to send to my students.


    1. One of the first things we do in my classroom is redefine the word fair. I think it is so important for students to understand that they have different needs and fair is giving them what they need at the given time. Thanks for reading and commenting, Joe!

  4. As others have said, SO powerful. I’ve been in this situation before and am sad to admit that I did not take the high road. Will DEFINITELY think of this post the next time I have a cheating situation. Like you pointed out, the students aren’t likely to be intentionally seeking to be unethical. They feel they must, and that pressure just doesn’t have to be there in our classrooms. Truly a great reminder.

    1. I am so glad you found the post helpful! It was incredibly difficult to remove my emotions from the situation, but well worth it. I developed a relationship with that student instead of shattering one. It was a great year for her. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Garnet, this is such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing this experience. I find myself relating to so much that you on your blog. It such a testament to your teaching that you are not only able to connect and relate to students in these situations, but also the reflection you demonstrate afterwards. Thank you for reminding me that LEARNING is always our goal. Sometimes, we have to just sit back and let that happen instead of demanding it happens NOW.

    1. Sometimes it is so difficult to get the kids to understand that learning is the goal by the time they reach high school that I sound like a broken record! 🙂 Thanks for reading and such kind comments. I am so glad that the blog has resonated for you! More reflections to come…

  6. Garnet,
    My favorite line in this post is, “It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.” What a great reminder you’ve given that it’s about how a student shows understanding, not necessarily about my timeline or format. I was given a great opportunity early last year when a student came for some extra help after school. She shared that she wasn’t feeling fully ready for the assessment because there were a few concepts that were still fuzzy. I explained that she was more than welcome to take the assessment and then we’d work on and reassess the areas that were not proficient. What relief she expressed! I think sometimes I forget how daunting assessments can be for students and my experience with this student reminded me that proficiency isn’t about a timeline … it’s about being proficient. My outlook on assessment really changed after that moment this past year. And … the student was completely proficient on everything, turns out! Just needed a confidence boost, it seemed, or a reminder that we don’t have to be perfect at the speed of others. Thanks for a great post Garnet. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Amy, I agree, learning is not a race. Different kids will reach proficiency at different times and we must be ok with that. It is one way we show them respect as individuals and encourage them to shine!

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