Vote in the 2022 Teachers on Fire Awards

Who were the education voices that sparked your thinking and ignited your professional practice in 2022?

Cast your votes in this first-ever edition of the Teachers on Fire Education Awards.


Award Categories

  • Education BOOK
  • Education FACEBOOK GROUP
  • Education PODCAST
  • Education SPEAKER
  • Educator on TWITTER

Thank you for contributing. Your email will be collected by this Form in order to limit respondents to one entry, but your selections will remain confidential.

All award categories are optional, so you are welcome to submit entries for only those categories that matter to you. Although I understand that you may have quite a list of favorites in some categories, only your first response in each category will be considered.

A focus on voices that focus on education. The purpose of these awards is to amplify the education voices that are sparking teacher thinking and igniting professional practice in order to bring more fire to our classrooms and support student learning more powerfully than ever. As educators, we glean ideas and inspiration from a wide variety of voices from within and outside K-12 education. But for the purposes of these awards, I’d like to keep the focus on education voices only. (For example, I won’t consider entries for Brene Brown or Simon Sinek in the speaker category.)

This Form was shared on December 21, 2022 and will remain open until December 28, 2022. Winners from each category will be published on all (or most) Teachers on Fire outlets.

Thank you again for participating. By completing the Form linked above, you’re shining a light on those educators that are making a difference, and you’re amplifying their voices.

Here’s to another great year of learning together.

Tim Cavey

Get the Most Out of Google Classroom: 13 Moves to Make

Here are the strategies I recommend to help you optimize your practice, preserve your sanity, and support your learners.

Welcome to Google Classroom. Whether you’re brand new to the platform or you’ve been here for a while, I’ve learned a few things that I think you’ll find helpful.

Let’s get into them.

1. Disable student posts, but allow comments.

You’ve just created a new Google Classroom. Easy.

From here, your first move is to disable student posts. You’ll be able to make this move in Settings.

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I teach in a middle school, and I’ll give you this word of warning: your Classroom feed can get away from you quickly if and when your middle or high school students discover the power to create their own posts.

Not today, students. Limit them to commenting.

Student comments can form an important part of a healthy learning community as they ask thoughtful questions, make suggestions, or encourage each other. And comments can be easily managed: it’s easy to mute a student who gets a little spammy or carried away.

But disable student posts.

2. Show attachments and details on the Stream.

I see ten different classes per week. That’s ten unique Google Classrooms.

I find it incredibly helpful to be able to quickly log into a Classroom and see at a glance what I last posted, when I posted it, the attachments and exemplars I provided for students, and how many students have submitted their work.

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When posts aren’t expanded on the Stream, it takes more brainpower and time to try to recall the nature of a learning activity by its title alone, and I have no idea what student progress is like without clicking into it. Ugh.

I know there are some who prefer no learning activities on the Stream page at all, but to me that just doesn’t make sense.

The Class Work page is not listed chronologically, which means that it does NOT tell me at a glance which learning activity I posted last. And just like the Stream when it’s set to condensed notifications, the Class Work page does not show details of learning activities or student progress without clicking into it. Ugh.

That’s too inefficient for my liking.

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Take my advice and make this move in your Classroom settings.

3. Limit notifications strategically.

Limit your Google Classroom email notifications before they limit you.

Seriously, if you leave this wide open and you teach a number of classes, your sanity will disappear quickly under an avalanche of emails.

To adjust your Classroom notifications, go to your General Classroom Settings. You’ll find the icon in the very top left of your screen from anywhere in Classroom.

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Next, scroll down to the very bottom of the menu to find Settings. From there, you’ll see the controls for Email Notifications.

The first button is the master switch. You do have the option to turn ALL notifications off. But I don’t recommend it.

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There are many kinds of notifications that are useful and will contribute to the learning life of your Classroom. For example, if a student posts a question, you want to be notified of it with a direct link to the learning activity in question — very helpful.

Instead, you want to think strategically about eliminating notifications that don’t help you serve students.

For example, I start by turning off notifications for student work that has been submitted late. If a learning activity was due on Monday, I’m not concerned if they submit it on Tuesday. Frankly, I’m happy they submitted it at all.

Late > never. If it’s been submitted by the time I review it and provide feedback, we’re good.

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There, I just reduced the emails hitting my inbox.

Next, I turn off notifications in any Classrooms where I am not actively teaching (but I am still a Teacher in the Classroom). Let me explain.

I teach 8B Math, and I have an 8B Classroom. I do not teach 8C or 8P Math, but I like to be a Teacher in those Classrooms so that I can pop in and see what my partner teacher is doing at any time.

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Turning off notifications for Classrooms where I want access but don’t actively teach is another way to reduce emailed notifications.

4. Invite students to create a Google Classroom header using Canva for Education.

We know that giving students voice and choice wherever we can in the learning community increases their sense of agency, ownership, identity, and belonging.

So why not give them a chance to put their fingerprints on your Google Classroom?

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This year, I started off the term by inviting my new students to do exactly that. Using their free Canva for Education accounts, students created their own Google Classroom header from a sea of templates.

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They submitted their entries, and then I get the fun of featuring a different student’s creative personality every week (or two). It keeps things interesting, it saves me the time of making creative headers myself, and students feel a little more connected and recognized. It’s win-win.

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You’ll get a mix that represents our students: balanced, creative, classy, serious — and the laughably bizarre. All are welcome.

5. Put emojis at the beginning of each topic and post title.

By putting emojis at the beginning of each Topic (section on the Class Work page) and post title, you’ll make your learning activities easily identifiable and build a clear sense of cohesiveness from activity to activity.

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Another important benefit of this practice is that when it comes to reposting learning activities from previous years, activities can be difficult to identify or locate in the Reuse Post menu (since the Reuse Post menu doesn’t reveal Topics).

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By including emojis at the beginning of each post title, I give myself a quick way of visually distinguishing between a unit on Surface Area (📦) versus the Pythagorean Theorem (📐).

6. Number your learning activities.

There is more power and convenience here than meets the eye. It is so helpful to be able to use numbers to give clarity to students regarding posted learning activities.

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“Please submit your PNG file in Activity 2, not Activity 1,” you’ll hear yourself saying. Numbers make it easier to refer to specific assignments, especially as the unit moves along.

7. Treat posts as lesson plans: include as many of the main elements of the learning activity as possible.

Think of Google Classroom learning activities like lesson plans. Make them clear and dummy-proof, with numbered instructions, clear formatting, and all related attachments.

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When your posts are this detailed, you hardly need lesson plans. Even better, your posts become easy for colleagues, substitute teachers, or your future self to repost.

Even if you improve on your lesson next year, you’re giving yourself a strong starting point. Your future self will thank you.

8. Use the Reuse Post option whenever possible.

I (almost) always prefer to Reuse Post rather than create a post from scratch. 

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Reusing a previous post gives me lots of practical benefits:

  1. Emojis remain intact in the post title (I don’t have to look for them).
  2. The learning target and essential question are already present. Even if we’re moving on to a new learning target, it’s helpful to see our last one as I plan forward.
  3. Relevant attachments remain pre-loaded. Attachments might include a helpful PDF, a screenshot of randomized class groupings for our current project, a video resource that was helpful, or a Doc from a related class discussion.

9. Use the Question feature for frequent self-assessment by students.

How are my students doing with our latest learning target? How do they think their learning is going?

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Use Google Classroom’s Question feature to quickly collect self-assessment data from your learners. Once you’ve created one such question, you can use the Reuse Post feature to ask similar questions in the future while keeping your multiple choice options (proficiency levels) intact.

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In the Question settings, un-check ‘Students can see class summary’ to make sure results remain private. In my teacher view, I can click on any of the bars above to see exactly which students responded at each proficiency level.

Who are the two students who feel that their learning is still Developing and may require additional support? I can see in a click.

10. Use the app’s student selector to get to know your students.

I have the blessing of teaching 220 middle school students over the course of the school year. It’s an awesome opportunity for me to develop relationships with every learner in our community — a very helpful benefit when I throw on the hat of part-time vice-principal.

But how can I possibly learn and retain so many names? My most reliable hack so far has been the Google Classroom Student Selector (only available on the mobile app).

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Here’s how it works.

At the start of class, I log into the appropriate Classroom on my Google Classroom mobile app. I post one of these great check-in questions on the screen (hopefully with an answer frame as a Tier 1 support).

Then I put the Google Classroom student selector. It does its job of randomizing the student order, but the win for me is that I get to say each student name a couple of times and pair the name immediately with the face.

“Next up, we have Dan! How would you respond to this, Dan?”

Dan may give me a colorful response, which may give me something to associate with his name and face. In any case, I’m getting to know my students better.

11. Use ‘Each Student Will Get a Copy’ to track student progress in real time.

Your students’ work may be incomplete or unsubmitted, but it’s NEVER going to be missing when you select ‘Each Student Will Get a Copy’ beside a Google Doc, Slide, Sheet, Jamboard, or Drawing.

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Never. Missing. You can look at it any time you want.

Let that sink in.

By activating this option, you can go into your students’ Doc, Slide, Sheet, Jamboard, or Drawing and see exactly what their status looks like in real time. There’s no more mystery around their progress or where their work is — you can see it right there.

This also gives you the opportunity to offer real-time feedback, coaching, and suggestions on their work.

That is BIG.

Once you’re viewing a student’s work, it’s easy to navigate quickly to other students. Use the drop-down menu or the arrow controls.

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(I’m using my Teachers on Fire Google Classroom and a mock assignment to illustrate this point in order to protect the privacy of my actual students.)

12. If you’re in a standards-based grading environment, turn off rubric scoring.

For educators fighting the good fight against points and trying hard to put the focus of learning on proficiency, numbers in rubrics don’t help. To get rid of them, turn scoring off. Force students to think in terms of proficiency and consider the criteria you’ve provided at each proficiency level.

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13. Add your colleagues to your Classroom as Teachers.

Your school is a learning village, and you can treat it like one by inviting your teaching teammates (who share the same subject as you) to your Classroom as Teachers. As described earlier, even if they’re not posting or actively engaging, it just makes sense to increase visibility and collaboration by sharing access.

The same goes for your educational assistants and para-professionals. Help them support your IEP learners the best they can by giving them full access and visibility at your Classroom. They’ll be able to view activity details, support their designated learners, and possibly even support other learners in the class.

And don’t worry — these other Teachers can’t do too much damage. Only you can delete the Classroom as original creator.

Closing thoughts

I’ve been on Google Classroom since about 2016. I’ve seen it slowly evolve forward, and I know it will continue to do so in the years to come.

Classroom isn’t amazing. It’s not especially powerful —when you think about it, it’s basically just a shell over Google Drive.

Google Classroom’s strength is its simplicity. It just works for teachers and learners.

Follow these simple tips, and I know you’ll enjoy the experience.

Happy learning, fellow educator.

When Discord Comes to Middle School

How I walked three middle schoolers through the aftermath of a war of words.

I received an email a couple of weeks ago alerting me to some harsh expletives and slurs being exchanged between some of our students on Discord. The email contained a screenshot of a particularly offensive exchange.

The same morning, I received a phone call. I heard more concerns about the nature of these interactions.

Then another email, with more screenshots.

It was clear that hurtful stuff was flying back and forth between some of our students.

Here’s the thing. Our middle schoolers use Chromebooks during the school day. Phones and personal devices are prohibited and cannot access our school’s wifi network. A network filter restricts access to gaming and social media sites.

So it’s fair to say that students are not on Discord during the school day. They’re not accessing it with school devices, and they’re not using it with personal devices on the school’s wifi network.

Yet this is the third consecutive year that student behavior on Discord has made its way to my vice-principal’s desk.

What IS Discord?

It’s funny: the word discord actually means disagreement, or fighting. Older versions of the Bible warn about those who sow discord like seeds. Their gossip, slander, and insults can take root and grow into serious strife and division between friends.

I have a Discord account, technically. I don’t use it often, but it exists. I think it’s a good platform with a nice interface — despite the shaky choice of name. I’m simply not a gamer and I don’t have many friends who use it.

If you work in a middle school or high school, you’ve at least heard of Discord. Created in 2015, the app originally gained popularity in the gaming community as a way for gamers to chat by voice and text.

Today, the platform’s membership continues to grow beyond the gaming community as the platform goes up against messaging giants such as MS Teams and Slack. I hear YouTubers, podcasters, and business leaders like Gary Vaynerchuk inviting followers to join them on their Discord servers.

Like I said, I’m not a gamer and I don’t use it often. But Discord is a big deal, and it’s an especially big deal for our students.

Schools can’t referee online activities happening outside of school

Let’s be clear: it’s not the role of schools or educators to referee what is going on in online spaces between students on evenings and weekends. To try to do so what be an infinite task, a fruitless mission, and a terrible use of the time that we are entrusted with.

Image Source:

Parents, that stuff is on you. And on me — I’m a parent of teenagers, too. Digital literacy for families is a massive topic and challenge worthy of its own blog post.

Online strife has a way of spilling into the classroom

On the other hand, educators hold a professional duty of care to the children that we serve each day. Like it or not, we can’t turn completely deaf ears and blind eyes to the online exploits of these young people who rely on us for guidance, growth, and mentorship.

The online word wars have a way of entering our spaces. And sometimes, we have to face them head on.

How I addressed the latest discord on Discord

So it was with some sadness that I called a meeting with three of the lead Discordians involved in the latest conflict.

The online exchanges that had been shared with me were too bitter, too mean-spirited, too inappropriate to simply ignore and move on. These were students who worked together, learned together, and shared the same physical spaces with each other. Feelings had been hurt and some anger was clearly simmering near the surface.

We needed to address the harm caused, restore relationships, and commit to doing better together.

Here was the outline I followed for our conversation.

1. We started by naming the harmful online behavior.

I didn’t want to park here for long, and I certainly wasn’t interested in conducting an in-depth investigation of every line, every word, every term that had come to my attention in the screenshots I had received.

The point here was to simply name it: I wanted each student to acknowledge that their words had crossed some lines. Thankfully, they did so willingly.

2. A reminder: our online behaviour has a way of sticking around.

I told them the recent story of a would-be politician who was haunted by screenshots of his social media behavior. The candidate’s hateful tweets from eleven years prior had been discovered and were being circulated by his political opponents.

His campaign was toast as a result.

Twenty-five years into the internet, there are countless reminders like this one. Comments made online have a way of sticking around indefinitely.

It’s a good reminder to all of us: be kind to future You when you conduct yourself online today.

3. Just as corporate logos bring values to mind, we each have a personal brand.

I showed the students some major corporate logos and asked them to name the values that came to mind.

What do you think of when you see the Apple logo? How about Nike?

When I showed them the golden arches of McDonald’s, we agreed on words like tasty, salty, greasy, and fast. But we also agreed that customer service doesn’t belong on that list, or at least not as a core value.

4. A post-it writing activity: What are the core values that you want to be known by?

We had just finished brainstorming the core values that come to mind when we see the logos of some of the world’s most famous companies.

Now it was the students’ turn.

What were the values that they wanted to be known by? What were the words that they wanted to come to mind when people saw their face or read their name?

We took 2–3 minutes of quiet reflecting and writing to consider this question. I participated, too.

Then we went around the circle and shared our responses. It did my heart a lot of good to be reminded of the values that my young friends actually aspire to. And I think it was good for their classmates to hear those values, too.

5. Committing to do better by aligning our values with our online activities

We concluded our time together with a round of commitments. What would each student do differently, I asked, to make sure that their online activities aligned with the core values that they wanted to be known by?

What would that look like at school? What would that look like on Discord?

Again, students participated willingly. Perhaps a good portion of their answers were performative — that’s somewhat inevitable.

But I think it’s important to actually say out loud what we intend to do differently, and to do so in front of others that we’ve wronged.

Our mission of growth continues

With that, I warmly thanked these students for our discussion and sent them on their way.

This won’t be the last time that discord on Discord makes its way to my task list, but that’s just part of the job.

It’s part of the job because it’s part of our mission: supporting the growth of the learners in our care.

And in 2022, that growth includes responding to discord on Discord.

Image Source: Second Step Curriculum for Middle Schoolers

Two Scary Phone Habits That Will Bring Back Your Fire for Teaching

You’re not a victim: empower yourself by controlling your phone.

You’re lying in bed, minutes away from going to sleep. You’re looking sleepily at your phone and notice a new email. It’s from a parent of one of your students, and the subject line sounds emotional.


Your blood pressure skyrockets as you scan the opening lines. You put the phone down beside your bed, but it’s too late. You’re already rehearsing responses and worrying about how much time and energy this issue will steal from you the next day.

Bye bye, sleep.

On another evening, you’re trying to focus on a complex task and your phone starts buzzing repeatedly. Who’s messaging me like a madman right now?

You try to recenter your focus on the project, but you can’t shake the question. After a minute or two, you pick up your phone. I’ll just see who it was.

Fatal mistake. The teacher chat is popping off with questions about a school event happening the next day, and someone’s asking for support. As one of the more experienced members of the team, you’re one of the few who can answer questions and share resources. You jump in, and now you’re living in the chat for the next 30 minutes.

The conventional wisdom says you’re a victim.

These are well-known problems in teacher land, and the fingers often get pointed angrily at the origins of the messaging.

Why do they need to send me an email so late in the evening?

How dare they message me on my weekend?

Why won’t they respect my time?

First: the practical problems with scheduled emails

One well-traveled admonishment that I’ve heard in the last few years is for teachers and administrators to schedule all emails. Never send in real time on an evening or on a weekend — always schedule it for the next school day morning, this thinking goes.

I tried to hold to that religiously for a while. But I’ve noticed some practical problems with the practice.

For one, scheduled emails can waste everyone’s time.

Let’s say that a teacher emails three colleagues for a solution to a problem they’re facing. It’s entirely possible for all three recipients to craft lengthy, thoughtful replies to the query and schedule them all for Monday morning.

When the three replies arrive, it turns out there’s a whole lot of overlap and redundancy between them — they’re all saying the same thing. It’s a maddening waste.

Scheduled emails can also create confusion.

Scheduled emails can lead to email threads with conflicting or old-news replies jumbled together out of chronological order.

The thoughtful reply that was crafted on Saturday morning has been made utterly irrelevant by a decision made on Sunday night.

Worst of all, scheduled emails can create more stress than ever.

Just put yourself in the shoes of any teacher who comes into school on a busy Monday with no scheduled prep blocks to be greeted by an avalanche of unread emails written since Friday at 3:30. I’m not convinced that’s such a blessing for teacher mental health.

Feeling some doubts around the scheduled email practice, I went to teachers to get a sense of their preference. I posted a poll on Twitter and 189 responded.

As I suspected, the majority of teachers would actually prefer the option (not mandate) of reading school-related communications on the weekend (if and when they want to) versus the Monday morning avalanche.

Two radical phone habits that will bring back your fire for teaching

If scheduled emails aren’t the answer, we’re still left with the phone anxiety I described at the top. How can we keep digital communication in its place and make sure that we are engaging on our terms and not someone else’s?

As Dave Ramsey likes to say, you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired in order to make real and painful changes.

Perhaps you’re there with phone emails and notifications.

Wherever you are and whatever your lived experience, here are two radical moves that will transform your lived experience.

Buckle up.

Habit 1: Leave your phone out of the bedroom at night

What if I told you that there was one simple change that you could make to your life that would produce the following:

  • Less stress about work
  • Less blue light in your day
  • Less electronic activity near your body
  • More sex
  • More sleep
  • More reading
  • More pillow talk
  • More journaling and reflection

That’s right. Leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night will produce all of these benefits and more. Guaranteed.

I started this practice a few years ago and find it easily one of the most personally transformative changes that I’ve ever made. It’s one of those simple-but-hard moves that absolutely anyone can make that costs nothing.

Even beyond the bullet list of benefits above, there’s a quality of mind that’s hard to describe and impossible to quantify when your phone is not on the same floor as you. It’s like going off the grid, but better.

And you can do it. Of course, I’ve heard all the reasons why people can’t make a similar move to keep their phones away from their bedroom at night.

  • “I need my phone for an alarm clock.”
  • “I need to be available for my children.”
  • “I need to be available in case of emergencies at the school.”

Most of this amounts to “What if” and FOMO.


You’ll be okay without your black mirror beside your head while you sleep, just like your parents were.

Scary habit 2: Keeping your phone permanently on Do Not Disturb

As Tristan Harris points out in The Social Dilemma, things that are actually tools don’t control us. They don’t call to us. They don’t insist on breaking our focus.

Tools do exactly what we want them to, when we want them to. They are humble servants.

It’s for that reason that I don’t want to hear from my phone. At all.

Turning my phone’s ringer off is a no-brainer place to start, but that isn’t enough for me.

I don’t want vibrations when my phone is sitting on a surface. I don’t want my phone waking up (lighting up) with notifications of any kind. Ever.

If I’m occupied with a task, I want radio silence and a screen that stays dark.

And that’s what I get. By leaving my phone on Do Not Disturb (look for the moon symbol) 24/7, my phone never lights up, vibrates, or rings.

My phone tells me that I’m receiving an average of 168 notifications per day, and the apps pictured below the graph show the number of notifications each one would generate on a weekly basis if I allowed them to.

Some of the 168 notifications per day that I’m not receiving on my phone thanks to DND

The iPhone exception: favorite contacts can reach me

I can’t speak to Androids, but iPhones allow a small loophole for the conditions I described above.

If I’ve tagged a contact as a Favorite, their calls and messages will come through. That means that my wife, kids, parents, and school administrators can still call and text me. As a husband, parent, and vice-principal, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that some exceptions must be made.

For the rest of the world, including my colleagues, they are still free to message me on iMessage, Google Chat, WhatsApp, or whatever. I purposely leave badges on those apps, so the next time that I open my phone, I’ll see that I received a message.

But I’m coming to the message on my terms, when I want to. I’m not allowing others to barge in on my work whenever they please.

Why not just remove all school email and apps from your phone?

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the Scorched Earth method. I know at least one colleague who refuses to have school-related communication (email or Google Chat) on his phone. And I know there are others who believe in that level of compartmentalization.

I respect the intention there, but I’m not interested. To me, the ability to be able to read and respond to emails and DMs from my team when it’s convenient for me is far too valuable.

My logic is that if I can read, file, and respond to 30 emails while I’m standing in the Costco line-up or waiting for a family member in the car, that’s 15 minutes of relaxation time that I can spend with my wife instead of sitting down at the computer.

Or let me put it this way: if I remove all school email and apps from my phone, I’m giving up those micro-opportunities to fend off Email Mountain that a typical day provides. Instead, I’m choosing to either stay longer at the school or give up more of my home time for work.

Do you like those choices? Neither do I.

Instead, I keep all options open so that I can respond to them on my terms: when I want to, when I have the emotional energy, and when it’s convenient for me.

Boundaries create freedom and empowerment

I titled this piece Two Scary Phone Habits because that’s what they are: scary. Most readers will acknowledge some level of logic in my arguments but will likely ignore both suggestions.

And that’s okay. It’s not my intention to should on you.

But if I hear you complain about school messages and emails coming to you at all hours of night and weekend, I’m going to remind you of something: you’re not a victim of some angry parent or over-zealous administrator.

Take control of your phone.

Take back your sanity by giving these two phone habits a chance.

The results just may change your life.

Photo credit: Flo Maderebner on

A Message to Middle Schoolers: Stop Sweating the School Stuff

Chill is a skill: don’t let academic anxiety steal the joy from your life.

I’m a vice-principal in a small middle school of 220 students.

Our kids are awesome. And our families are invested and supportive.

It’s cool to learn in our school. It’s cool to be a tryhard. It’s cool to help others learn, too.

Something else. Our assessment system features no percentages or letter-grades.

Instead, evidence of student learning is assessed against curricular standards using a 4-point proficiency scale like the one below.

By removing letter-grades and percentages from the picture, we’re also getting rid of rank-and-sort. We’re saying goodbye to trophy culture. We’re not interested in defining winners and losers.

Instead, we’re saying that we are a learning community. We pursue proficiency together because we are all developing learners.

That’s our messaging, anyway.

Academic anxiety can persist even in standards-based grading environments

I know a couple of middle schoolers who regularly demonstrate high proficiency against learning standards in virtually every subject.

They are committed and determined learners. They’re outstanding collaborators. They’re compassionate supporters and encouragers of classmates. They’re leaders in the room and absolute joys to teach.

These students project a lot of sunshine and roses, but a silent battle rages below the surface.

They struggle with intense anxiety around their academic achievement.

It’s so saddening, and it defies understanding.

What’s at the root of this anxiety?

Here’s a bold proposition: no middle schooler should have to deal with academic anxiety. Absolutely none — I don’t care how well their learning is progressing.

When high school juniors and seniors experience academic anxiety, I don’t like it, and I can make some strong cases against it. For one, the quality of your life will not depend on which college you’re admitted to.

But with college around the corner, I can at least understand it.

In middle school — especially one without letter-grades or percentages — it’s almost inexplicable. How can our students possibly lose sleep over their academic performance?

My theories about where most of this anxiety comes from

The top-notch counselling team at my school could likely offer more insights, but my conversations with middle schoolers over the years lead me to the following theories:

1. Parent pressures.

Well-intentioned or not, it’s no secret that some parents push their children pretty hard. Report card pressure can be intense. One of the many messages: your future depends on shining achievement in school. Threats and rewards of various kinds may accompany these messages.

2. College admission.

Linked to parent pressures, this is the idea that success in one’s profession (and in life) depends on admission to the right college or university. We hear this idea from students as early as fourth grade.

College admission depends on the 12th grade transcript, which depends on stellar high school achievement, which depends on acceptance to honors programs, which depends on strong middle school performance. Ta-da! The roadmap is drawn for a decade of anxiety.

3. A fixed mindset.

Some students have been called “smart” so many times in their lives that it becomes a part of their identity. Instead of instilling invincible confidence, hearing a lifetime of “you’re so smart” can create a fear of slipping or risking the source of that sacred status. Carol Dweck lays this out beautifully in Mindset.

Others describe this student as one on defense (stick to what is safe and I’ve proven I can do well) versus offense (try new things, take new risks, engage with difficult tasks when possible).

Other theories from my professional learning network

When I reached out to my Twitter PLN for their theories about where this academic anxiety comes from, their answers were insightful.

4. Personality and Psychological Profile.

Middle school teacher Riley Dueck observes that “Some students are more inclined to perfectionism/anxiety than others (see Enneagram Type 1 & Type 6).”

Intermediate educator Maria Dawson puts some of the blame on “Undiagnosed ADD. Builds anxiety and creates internal pressures. Considerably worse in females as the SNAP assessments are all geared for previous typical ADHD behaviours. Sometimes the H can be hyperfocus not hyperactive.”

5. Peers.

Erik Murray says “I see it a lot and it comes from peers. It’s like keeping up with the mini Joneses: ‘I got ranked this in the math team — what did you get?’ That sort of thing.”

Maureen Wicken is on the same page, writing “Comparison: not only is it the thief of joy, but it also destroys our sense of accomplishment, hope, and purpose. And giving everyone participation trophies doesn’t seem to have helped.”

6. Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis.

My incredible colleague Anika Brandt points out more Ps that factor into this conversation: the cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis.

She’s right, of course — some academic anxiety is self-induced (or at least amplified) by destructive tendencies. When this cycle shows up for students, it makes me want to ask: what fears lie behind it, and how can we unpack them?

We need to be more curious about academic anxiety

It’s at about this point that some of my education colleagues will pointedly remind me: “Why aren’t you asking the students where their anxiety comes from?”

I am, and I will. We talk a lot about social-emotional health with our students, but we need to be more direct and more curious about the extent of academic anxiety specifically and its origins.

When we know more, we can do more.

In the meantime, I want to share a message specifically to the people that matter most.

My message to middle schoolers

Dear students,

Your teachers and I love you so much. It is an incredible joy to be able to teach and work and learn beside you each day. YOU make the difficult work of teaching all worth it.

We know that the adults in your life sometimes forget how anxious you actually feel about school. We want to do a better job of supporting you.

Please let us know when you’re feeling low. Let us know when you’re worried. Let us know when you’re having trouble sleeping or eating because the school anxiety is so intense.

Your teachers want to help, and sometimes we can support you in ways that you didn’t expect or may not have thought of.

Oh, and our counselling team is awesome. Being able to talk about your worries with another person can make all the difference. We’d love to set up an appointment for you if you’d be open to that.

Finally, here’s some honest perspective.

Middle school life is difficult and complicated enough without worrying about grades and academic achievement.

You know that as teachers, we’re going to continue to encourage you to be curious, be daring and adventurous with your learning, apply yourself, use class time well, and collaborate with others.

But trust us when we say this: no matter how your work is assessed, you’re going to be fine. Really. The quality of your incredible future doesn’t depend on your middle school grades.

So keep developing yourself. Keep following your passions and curiosities. Keep having fun, enjoying good laughs, and building solid friendships.

That’s what middle school life should be about. Please don’t allow your academic achievements to steal that from you.

Stop sweating the school stuff, and enjoy every day of this crazy thing we call life.

We’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.

Mr. Cavey

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