The Brooklyn BrainLady

teaching & learning, in a fancy dress

This past month, I took the state exam that would officially allow me to teach students with disabilities. This is huge news for several reasons:

1. I have successfully avoided taking this exam for 16 years.

2. This is historically an arena in which I am not successful. (I got an 880 on the SAT. Twice.)

3. I have hyperactive AD/HD. The exam is four-hours long.

4. I missed the deadline to apply for testing accommodations. (see #3)

5. I have a hard time giving the answer people want me to give, especially when I know it’s not the best one.


Standardized tests are not the best place to take a stand. In fact, you are not allowed to stand at all. I learned this after an hour of staring at the computer screen in my teeny-weeny study carol, rolling and unrolling my wipe-off scrap paper. The screen was particularly painful. The screen made my brain think it was time to watch The West Wing. The screen had a little clock ticking down the time remaining in the corner. The clock was the only thing one can click to change the appearance of the screen. I clicked the clock.

On. Off. On. Off. On. Off.

I’m not going to survive.
I have to get out of this room.

I engaged several strategies, most of which I discovered on childhood road trips while stuck in the back of a 1983 Dodge Caravan: take several deep breaths, close your eyes and go to Fantasy Land, pretend there is music playing and dance covertly in your chair, say nice things in your head…and when all else fails, say you really have to pee.

I was allowed to go to the bathroom. Score! Added bonus: The bathroom was empty and had ample space for movement. That’s when I proceeded to pull two paper towels out of the dispenser, place them between my palms and the cold tile and engage in a series of yoga poses on the floor designed to increase the blood flow to my brain and, thus, my concentration. I also did jumping jacks and a round of stretching.

Hey, make it work, right?

After several choreographed sips from the automatic sink, my wet shirt and I marched back to the testing room renewed. It was time to go back to the items I had marked to check later- those that required answers I did not want to give. What did they all have in common?

They all contained scenarios where a student was struggling to engage in the learning environment appropriately.

The learning environment was always a general education classroom.

The correct answer was some version of “go get someone else”. (guidance counselor, principal, special education provider, etc.)

I wanted some other answer:

A.) Ask the student if they’d like to eat lunch during your prep time to strategize.
B.) Ask the student if they’ve eaten breakfast. Give them a granola bar.
C.) Realize the reading level was too high for them and they feel stupid. Tell them it was your fault and ask them how you can make it more accessible.
D.) Give them a hug.

I wanted a more humane answer. I wanted an answer that involved staying with that student and listening to them and trying to understand why they couldn’t be present with us in that moment. Any other is answer serves only to delay healing and possibly damages the most important relationship they have in that building: the one with their teacher. When we call someone else, I fear we communicate they they are not worthy of our time. When we do it in front of others, I fear we communicate no one else should take the time either.

In order to prepare our young teachers for the true complexities of being a classroom teacher, we need to make it okay for them to respond in real time to issues that will eventually be headed by another team member. We need to make it okay to be human. We need to make it okay to choose another option in the moment in order to be successful in the long-run.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I certainly understand in some cases one needs to comply with the law. I know I understand this because I passed the students with disabilities exam with flying colors. I had to flip upside-down on a wall while balancing on paper towels to do it, which I’m sure is not covered in any test administration manual anywhere. But you know what? It’s what I needed in the moment to be successful, and I gave myself permission to do it.

It’s okay to be human.

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