A memory popped up in Facebook on Friday that truly made me smile. That’s one of the advantages of Facebook–you get a chronicle of life events that you’d forgotten about. You get to celebrate again the victories, cherish the moments of happiness and love in days gone by, and revel in the fact that you might have been broken momentarily, but you didn’t stay broken.

The memory that popped up was a teaching moment. A moment I shared on Facebook because it was the kind of moment all teachers celebrate. The kind of moment that fuels the teaching passion to keep pressing on, that makes all the late nights grading and planning worth it, the kind of moment that makes a teacher say, “This is why I do this.”

Of course, one year ago, in February 2020, I had no idea how the profession of teaching would be turned sideways and upside down and inside out. Virtual teaching, remote learning, asysnchronous, synchronous, weren’t born yet. But the moment that happened was identical to a few moments that happened for me this week, even though I was in teaching in a completely different setting with entirely new challenges.

Let me share with you a few victories that happened this week and culminate with the 2020 memory.

TNT’s story

In my 4th grade virtual class, I have a set of twins. T and T, or TNT, as I affectionately think of them. This brother and sister team are great kids, attend Zoom lessons faithfully, and truly try their hardest.

However, their first semester grades did not reflect their work ethic. For some reason, their hard work during Zoom didn’t transfer to their time away from Zoom. Missing assignments, incomplete assignments, or poorly done assignments brought their grades down into the D and F zones. I tried all of the normal things–parent phone calls, invitations to redo assignments, proposals to come to Office Hours time that would allow me to check over their work and make sure they had what they needed, or to clear up any misconceptions.

For the first 20 weeks of school, these attempts fell flat. Assignments would be turned in, but incomplete. “Missing” still dotted their grades in PowerSchool. They would give enthusiastic promises to come back to Zoom in the afternoon, but then wouldn’t show up. I felt powerless because I knew that what the gradebook showed, wasn’t their story.

So I tried one more time. I made one more phone call. I was confident TNT and their mother didn’t want their grades to be their story either.

This time it worked. This time it clicked. This time there was a consistent dedication from both of them to show just as much enthusiasm and effort away from Zoom as they did on Zoom.

This past Thursday, they both returned to Zoom in the afternoon so I could review adding mixed numbers. While they were there, I took a moment to review the grade book with them. Friends, tears welled up. Both of them had all of their assignments submitted. Both of them had catapulted their grades from D’s and F’s to B’s and C’s and even a few A’s. But more important than the grades, both of them saw the reward in focusing their independent time resulted in what their story truly is–two hard working, dedicated students.

H’s story

H’s story starts out happily. She began the year thriving in virtual learning. The environment suited her learning style perfectly. H quickly earned her title as “Teacher Tech Assistant” because she able to problem solve with me on the fly when students had problems with Zoom, websites, screen sharing, or using the online tools. Her parents said she was having her best school year ever and school had been a joy for her.

However, as the year progressed, that initial spark of joy was diminishing. She was getting frustrated more easily and shutting down often. She was frequently using the phrase, “I’m confused.” Moreover, H has terrible test anxiety. Assessments would often take her double or triple the amount of time. H is a good student, frequently demonstrates that she does understand and is very capable, but she was getting lost quickly.

Through private conversations in Zoom Breakout rooms, shared screens, and a few diagnostic tools, a new light began to glimmer for H. First, I proposed that she stop using the phrase, “I’m confused.” Using that phrase gave her permission to be stuck. Instead, I asked her to pinpoint where the moment of confusion was. It was often observed that H was jumping ahead to step 5 and 6 in what we were doing, rather than completing tasks in order. I coached her that if she completed the steps in order, step 5 and 6 would reveal themselves. Basically, H had trouble with the big picture of an assignment or task, but when it was broken down into the steps, she was successful. After a few sessions of breaking tasks down, H used the phrase, “I’m confused” less often.

Another victory occurred when she and I tackled her test anxiety. It didn’t matter if it was a short 5 question quiz, or a longer 30 question assessment, H would shut down for long amounts of time. And timed tests? Forget about those. I could feel her anxiety ooze through the bandwidth.

The hard part was I didn’t know at what point she would shut down. It could be on the first question or the fifth or the last question. I recall on one test, she had been stuck for 30 minutes on the same question. Once I determined how paralyzing assessments were, she and I developed strategies to help her. The first was a typical test-taking strategy: if you don’t understand the question or can’t figure out the correct answer quickly, skip it. I coached her that giving prolonged energy to a question she wasn’t sure of was defeating and stressful. It’s better to move on and use her energy on questions she was sure of. This helped, but it wasn’t the end all.

Another strategy that happened more recently, is that I set a timer to check-in with H. Every 7 minutes I would ask her which question she was on. When she realized that each time she told me how she was progressing, it boosted her confidence and helped her to continue the mental momentum. The added benefit was as other kids heard me check in with H, they also joined in to update their status. Students would unmute themselves, tell me where they were, and then continue. I cheered on every update and praised their focus. I’m convinced this also helped H because she saw that she wasn’t the only one who needed to build her test-taking stamina. Knowing you’re not the only one who struggles helps to alleviate the struggle.

But that’s the end of H’s story. I’m overjoyed to share that this week, H’s effort and dedication to allowing the strategies to help her paid off. This was one of those weeks when multiple assessments landed in the same week. Two standardized math tests, a short ELA test, a 43 question science assessment, and a timed math fluency check. Normally, H would be stressed to the max. Not this time though. H embraced the challenge of each one and strengthened her stamina. She independently used what she had been coached. And the result? On her science test, she finished BEFORE some of her peers, with a 100%! But it doesn’t end there…

H has had the accommodation that she can take her timed test privately, during a time that was different than others. When I gave the students the test, I expected her to ask to take it at a later time. She didn’t ask, and I got side-tracked so I didn’t remind her of the opportunity to take it later. When the three minutes were up, students started telling me their scores (I don’t ask them to report it–many just volunteer it).

I was floored when H unmuted herself and reported her score. Two weeks ago, taking a timed fluency test would have been impossible. But with new strategies in place, a new mindset about tests, and a new sense of confidence, H voluntarily took the assessment with her peers.

I immediately stopped what I was doing and we all took a moment to do our Zoom cheer for H. We all witnessed H write a new chapter in her story.

C’s Story

C’s story was written last year. It was the memory that popped up in Facebook for me. I don’t think I can retell her story any better than I did on February 5, 2020, so I am going to share what I wrote then:

Every year, a teacher is blessed to have “that student”. “That student” who challenges you. “That student” who drives you crazy one minute, and melts your heart the next. “That student” who gets in her own way. “That student” who wants help, but doesn’t know how to take the help. “That student” who who will take two steps forward, then three steps back.

And when you start seeing progress with “that student”, and she starts believing in herself, you know as an educator, this is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Not a test score. Not a grade. True success is measured by helping a child that didn’t know she had the ability all along, realize it for herself.

This happened yesterday. My “that student” was taking a unit assessment, and seated next to me at my teacher table. She had a test score goal written on a sticky note next to her. I got up to help another student. When I came back, I saw she had taken a new sticky note, and written this message to herself. I teared up. She found her strength. She believed in herself. And I was on Cloud Nine for the rest of the day. The icing on the cake…she passed her test!

Rereading her story made me realize that although SO MANY things have changed since then, SO MANY things are the same. Teachers are the ultimate problem-solvers. We might be defeated or unsure of what to do. But we don’t stay in that place. We figure out what each student needs, what works, what doesn’t, what needs more time, and what needs to be abandoned.

The blessing of being a teacher, whether it’s during a pandemic or not, on Zoom or in the classroom, is that we have the honor of helping students write their life stories. I’d argue that it’s the best kind of writing there is.