Another perspective on exams


stuartpilbrow / Wikimedia Commons

On March 20, 2015, the earth’s South American Plate shook ever so slightly as 83 teenagers collapsed onto their beds, high on fatigue and relief. Mocks, a week of IB-style final exams, hd officially ended. That is, for students. As students headed off to celebrate, it was now the teachers’ turn to face the tests. For them, mock exams had to be graded by March 27.

As a high school senior who has no responsibilities in life beyond keeping up with my education, I cannot say that I truly understand the concept of “stress.” Ask a 10th grader how he feels during finals week and he’ll say he’s stressed. Ask a college senior and he’ll say the exact same thing. However, this does not mean that the 10th grader isn’t truly feeling that too-much-school-work malaise, it simply means that over time, the college senior’s stress barometer has been desensitized to subtler levels of compression and can now handle greater loads of it.

The pressure to turn assignments in on time, take several tests in one day, work towards college, and juggle school with extracurricular activities does take its toll on high school students. Ensuring students’ well being by stabilizing stress levels has been the center of discussions in class meetings, the SAB, assemblies, and more, but what about teachers and administrators? Later on Friday, as I spoke with a teacher about the loads of tests she had to score and the approaching deadline for the core values reports, I wondered: “Is teacher stress a thing?” Is it? I asked some teachers. This is what they had to say.

Does teacher stress exist?

Ms. Hunt: Teacher stress is a big thing. Most Graded teachers want to do a good job, which means finding ways to give good instruction, differentiate for students with different needs, reach a balance between giving support and encouraging independence, keep up on new trends in the field and advances in content, and contribute in positive ways to their departments and the school community. Just like the students, we all feel the pressures of working in an intense multi-cultural environment that asks us to be excellent, growth-oriented, and flexible. Graded demands a lot of teachers, but we seem to want that, to thrive on it. We all go off to do professional training and come back frantic to share what we’ve learned. The students, I know, sometimes hate it when their teachers come back from conferences (“Oh my God, please no. She learned stuff and now she’s going to want to try it on us”), but the drive to improve makes Graded go round.

I wouldn’t say that the biggest stress for teachers is between mock exams and IB exams, at least not for me. It’s sort of constant throughout the year. Recommendation letter writing season is pretty tough. Students may feel the pressure most now, but as an IB teacher, I’m constantly aware of pressure and progress. As teachers, we had to break down the whole curriculum and scaffold the skills, so to us, the period before the exams is just the culmination of what we were planning all along. I’m sure it feels different, more high stakes, from the student point of view. It’s much more academically stressful for me as a ToK teacher before January break, since all assessments are due then. That being said, it’s also pretty stressful watching my ToK seniors lose hold of everything they learned and practiced. They tell me that they get their brains back again by October of the following year.

Ms. Monti: Existe sim. Na Graded, os professores estão sempre corrigindo, avaliando, criando rubrics e atualizando seus Curriculum Maps, etc… Para te dar um exemplo, no curso IB BrSS, acabei de avaliar as cópias finais dos IAs e tenho os Mocks para corrigir e indicar os grades para o IB ainda esta semana. Em seguida, temos os Core Values Reports individuais para entregar. Fora, claro, a preparação das aulas e reuniões com os times e alunos.

Amaral: Yes, stress is also a major issue among teachers. It is a constant feeling that I am always behind with everything I have to do. I come to school with a list of things to do and I can barely reach item ONE due to all the other things that come on my way. Teaching is hardly ever a source of stress, save all the grading I have to do with the new assessment policy. But on a daily basis, I have to answer over twenty to forty 40 e-mails, contact students for CAS & EE, respond to teachers and parents’ queries, write letters of recommendation, meet with the administration, organize IB stuff, etc… I feel like I am drowning in papers and no matter how much work I do, I still have a long list to get to. I guess being a perfectionist just makes things much worse.

What has/will the days following IB mocks be like?

Mr. Berg: We always know more papers are coming in next week, so if we don’t get this week’s papers done that can cause some anxiety. Exams can take a lot of time to mark, depending on the subject—for L&L HL Paper 2 essays, which are typically between 5-10 pages of writing, I’ll get through two an hour on average. If I have 30 students between two sections of that course, that’s 15 hours, which is close to two full work days for most people (with nothing else on the plate).

Mr. Collins: Making time to grade papers requires focus, especially when you have classes still going and kids at home. But once you’re in a groove, it’s not too bad.

Ms. Hunt: It takes time for teachers to write comments and grade mock exams. But I’m sure most teachers feel as I do: as soon as the test is over, we run to get the papers, hoping that our students have done well, muttering about the questions some missed, smiling to ourselves when we see someone finally hitting their academic stride, berating ourselves for gaps in our instruction, and brainstorming ways to help students get where they hope to be in the next month. We assess and we adjust. It’s kind of awesome.

What are the challenges of grading papers? Does making sure your grades are “fair” stress you out?

Mr. Berg: It’s very important to be fair. For an experienced teacher that’s not stressful—it just means that every piece of work deserves professional attention. I know students consider me a strict grader, but I hope they don’t think I’m unfair. Like a number of other teachers around here, I’m an IB examiner, so I have a lot of experience with the identifying the appropriate descriptors to match the relevant categories on the rubric.

Mr. Collins: IB markschemes for history and economics have room for interpretation (i.e. “some evaluation,” “closely focused”). This isn’t good because you may have differences between teachers without moderation/or repeated training. The key is to be consistent so that students doing comparable work have the same scores. On the bright side, no comments are required for mocks, and very little on the final IA drafts, so scoring goes much faster.

I heard the new grading system has also added more to teachers’ plates, especially with the core value reports. What has it been like for you?

Ms. Hunt: It’s true that core values reports are coming up and that these take time to complete, but I like doing them because I believe in them. It’s no surprise that I don’t think that students knowing content and doing well on assessments is enough. It’s important to be knowledgeable, of course, but I am much more interested in the connections that students make between the content in their classes and the quality of their own lives and of the lives of others around them. Literature should make one wiser. ToK should make one both more tolerant and more discerning. Psychology should illuminate one’s own thought processes and habits. Maybe it’s because of the subject areas I teach (English, ToK, and Psych), but because I observe students in class discussions, read their blog posts, and watch how they approach synthesis tasks, I can see how they’re integrating class lessons into their personal schemas, or not. Reflecting on core values is a way to help students recognize the patterns that might be helping or hindering learning, but more importantly these comments interrupt the idea that education is about jumping through hoops and following some imagined linear path to success. Core values remind us that it matters what kind of learners and people we practice being.

Ms. Monti:  Com o novo sistema de avaliação, os alunos podem refazer as somativas. Assim, mais avaliações e notas são produzidas, fora que esse sistema exige uma avaliação ligada aos standards e os rubrics devem ser desenhados e passados para os alunos. Muita coisa mesmo, mas são desafios interessantes que nos colocam num constante repensar de nossas práticas de ensino.

How do you think teachers perceive student stress?

Ms. Hunt: There is something different, a kind of stress, about this time in senior classes, but I don’t think it’s about IB exams, exactly. Seniors are being pulled in many different directions and have much more mercurial responses than before. They are at the point in their education that the lessons in their classes should be prompting them to live meaningful lives and imagine how they will engage in the world, at least that’s what their teachers are hoping to see. Well, that, and excellent subject area knowledge. It is stressful being a teacher of seniors. It’s not just about how my students will do on exams but about helping seniors manage the competing desires of wanting to do well, spend time with their friends, do something memorable, and separate from this environment cleanly so they can enter their post-high school lives. From an anthropological perspective, I have to wonder what role these difficult exams play in the life of an adolescent. It’s not like Graded students have to kill a saber-toothed tiger or go through a painful ritual to be considered adults. Cultural and religious ceremonies are still around, but they don’t have much bite anymore, don’t require a lot from the participants. Instead, we at prep schools like Graded have a coming-of-age period that requires students to spend long hours applying to colleges, stay up countless nights studying, and go through nearly a month of assessment. While one is in it, this time might seem frustrating and painful. But this transition has a purpose. Seniors will feel different about themselves, their school, their parents, and their future once they’re on the other side of this. And that’s how it should be. So as a teacher of seniors, I don’t see the preparation for mocks and the period after mocks as being so much about learning content; that’s mostly done anyway. It’s about supporting seniors as they find balance in the emotional chaos and focus themselves effectively for a range of demanding and complex tasks.


So then, students are not the only ones subject to dark circles and graying hair. Hopefully, together, both students and educators can learn how to get into “a groove” and find balance in their lives.