I often think about teaching in comparison to being a coach.  Both teachers and coaches work with a group of people in hopes that those people will accomplish some task particularly well (often under pressure).   There is an ongoing learning experience where individuals in both groups gradually improve (hopefully) over time.   In each case, the whole process culminates in some type of test – sports teams play a game that they hope to win whereas students take an examination where they hope to excel.   In sports, the coach is trying to maximize the team’s chances for a victory.   In education, the teacher is trying to maximize the amount of every student’s understanding so that each person can do as well on the exam as possible.  

I spent my weekend writing a long, complex test for 41 of my students.   I know it will be a challenge to each one.   There is nothing easy about any of these questions but they have worked hard and they are capable of success.  I would really like to maximize the chances for success.

When I finished writing the test, I decided to sit down to watch a little bit of the basketball games in March Madness.   It is hard to avoid these games at this time of the year.

As I watched the teams play, I was struck by how much time and energy the coaches had expended in hopes of getting each player to do their very best.  The best coaches seemed to have taken nothing for granted.   They had done everything possible to help the players perform well.  Hmm, I found that interesting – they had done everything possible to help the players perform well.   Had I done as much for my own students?

I started thinking about my students and the test that they were surely preparing for at that moment.  We had spent an enormous amount of time working on the material but I wasn’t sure that I had helped them to be as psychologically prepared for the test as possible.   Is that my role?   Am I purely a teacher of material?   Or, if I want my students to really do well, do I have more of an obligation than that?  

One of the things I don’t like about testing is that it tends to put the teacher in an adversarial relationship with the students.   We are the coach but we are also the judge and that creates a bit of separation in the minds of both parties.   I’ve always wanted my students to know I was on their side.   I think that helps their learning.

After the last game was over last night, I decided that there really was a little bit more that I could do for my students to help them do their best on the test today.  Instead of going to bed, I wrote them one final email, not about the subject matter but rather about doing their best.   I imagine that a great basketball coach might have done something like this.   And, in all seriousness, are those games on television one bit more important than the success of your own students?  You might disagree but I think not.   One of the first steps in being a better teacher is to recognize the importance of your role and in doing it as well as you possibly can.

Here is the email that I sent out.  I have no idea whether it increased anyone’s grade even one point but, for me, it was worth a try.   At least, I wanted my students to know that I was cheering for them.  I did truly want them to do well.   Before your next test, you might try something similar.   If nothing else, I think it is good for the student-teacher relationship for them to know that you really do want them to learn and succeed.

To my students:

You will have your second test in roughly 12 - 13 hours.   I know I have said all of this before but I want to say it again as you mentally prepare yourself for the battle.

Most importantly, I doubt seriously that I am going to ask you anything that is not already in your head.   Seriously, I wrote each question with one comment to myself, "I think this is in their heads -- it is not really impossible/bizarre/unworkable.  I think they'll know this."  

So, I think the whole key to the test is getting the material out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.   That's all I want you to worry about in these last few hours -- getting the knowledge out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.  

To do that, you know what I'm going to recommend first -- get a normal night's sleep.   Being tired is one of the worst things you can do on a difficult test.   No one functions well when they are tired.   If you normally get 7 hours of sleep, then go for 7 hours of sleep.

Second, stay calm.   I know the questions are going to look bizarre at first.  Take a deep breath and tell yourself, "he wrote these questions knowing us and believing that we can work them.  Getting rattled is not going to help.  Let me read it carefully."  

Third, have confidence.   You are bright people who have made your way into this university, into this school, and into this class.   That didn't happen by accident.   Yes, the material is complicated but it is not that complicated.   Don't blow it out of all proportions.

Fourth, keep your concentration.   I always tell my students, "if the building catches on fire, you don't want to notice until some fireman picks you up and carries you from the room."    I don't care what happens in room 223 tomorrow morning, nothing but that test should make any difference to you.

Fifth, if you get stuck on a question, don't waste a lot of time on it.   Go find another question that you might know better and come back to the "stuck" question at the end of the time.  

Finally, be careful.   I'm always shocked/dismayed by how many points great students just throw away by doing careless things.   If you don't know a question, that's fine, I can live with that.   But don't just hand over points by making careless errors.  

I know you (not the person beside you but YOU) are capable of doing great.   I'll be cheering for you!!!!!!   Go get it!!!!!    Make it happen!!!!!!

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