by Kate Flowers, NBCT, Heinemann Fellow, SJAWP Teacher Consultant

Author’s note: This piece, written late January 2016, keeps haunting me. The word “rigor” gets a lot of traction in the world of education, and this is my gut reaction to it. What do you think? Should we rethink rigor?

It’s ten in the morning, and, since it’s my prep period,  my classroom is quiet and peaceful, the thirty-nine desks empty except for the two that my colleague Jon and I use. Jon, a passionate teacher I respect for his vast experience and “big picture” mindset, currently serves as teacher on special assignment, a position known for its habit of turning talented teachers into district henchmen who spend their days crafting soul-sucking district assessments.  Jon, however, fights against this, dedicating himself to fostering best practices in whatever covert ways he can, one of which involves his work with me.

We’ve been sketching out the beginning of a pilot program to promote independent reading in our district, but had gotten a bit off track, talking about other issues, when my colleague shares what he believes to be a universal truth.

“Of course, Kate, we want rigor in our classes,” Jon says, an aside to a larger point he is trying to make.

I pause, but he continues, not registering my hesitation or the fact that my attention isn’t with him any longer.

Of course we want rigor in our classes.

To disagree would be unthinkable.

To disagree would be akin to saying:  Of course, I want to be an irresponsible teacher who dooms her students to a lifetime of illiteracy. Right?

I’m going to share a little secret with you, though I don’t think I shared it with Jon at that moment. I loathe the word rigor. I know it is supposed to be untouchable, the one quality that all educators agree upon, but honestly, it’s been so abused and misused, I think it best if we just abandon it all together.

If we look at Merriam-Webster’s definition, you’ll see it’s a pretty horrible definition to begin with even before the misuse, nothing that any of us would want to use to define our teaching, student learning, or our lives. Merriam-Webster defines rigor as “(1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :  severity (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :  strictness (3) :  severity of life :  austerity, b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty, 3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; 4:  strict precision:  exactness, 5 obsolete:  rigidity, stiffness ;  rigor mortis.”

I’m sure there must be a more depressing, joyless definition in the dictionary, but it would take a while to find it. Is this really what we aspire to in our classrooms?

I hope not.

Now, many educators would argue that this broad definition does not account for its specific use in education, that by rigor educators mean challenge. And often, I agree, this is the case. However, in my own experience, I have too frequently witnessed rigor used to defend teaching malpractice.

While the vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with over the last two decades have been hard-working, innovative, caring professionals, rigor has taken its toll on the entire profession. How much of this pressure to idolize rigor stems from the mistaken idea that the problem with American education is that schools are too soft on kids? This belief casts rigor as the solution to all educational ills, and leads to the tyranny of standardized testing as a high-stakes accountability measure. David Denby exposes the impact of standardized testing in his article “Stop Humiliating Teachers” in the New Yorker:

Public-school teachers have been trapped in a maze of standardized tests. There were the tests mandated by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, passed in 2001, which yoked schools’ survival to test scores; and then there was the Obama program, Race to the Top, passed in 2009, which encouraged states to promote charter schools and the Common Core and linked promotion or dismissal to teachers’ ability to get kids to score well on tests; and there’s the Common Core itself, which has new, more difficult tests reinforcing it. Teachers run from one testing regiment to another.

Denby, it seems, has been lurking around schools, eavesdropping on teams of teachers toiling away on district committees as they race to modify benchmarks to measure the new Common Core assessments. California high school teachers didn’t even have time to celebrate the end of the California High School Exit Exam (itself the source of over a decade of stress and anxiety) this fall, as the first Common Core test results of the SBACC had arrived, with depressing results.

Just a problematic, though, is that rigor has become educational Kevlar for bad teaching. Jonathan Lovell, professor of English education at San Jose State University, says that there is a “knee jerk deference to rigor,” and this is clearly the case. While it isn’t an everyday occurrence, at least one teacher at every school where I’ve taught has used rigor as an excuse for bad teaching, and usually, when they use the rigor defense, people immediately back down.

I’ve heard a colleague dismiss a high failure rate in his classes with the words, “Well, my class is rigorous, what do you expect?” I’ve heard teachers dismiss student disengagement, misbehavior, boredom, and truancy all due to rigor.

Rigor, to these teachers, makes it acceptable for students to be miserable in our classrooms. Rigor makes it okay that only half the class turns in their homework. It makes it okay for teachers to obsess over curriculum while ignoring–or worse, disdaining–their students. It makes it okay if they assign the same boring paper, the same pointless homework, the same out of touch novel, over and over and over. It’s okay if school is painful for students because it’s rigorous. If the kids don’t succeed, it’s not the teacher’s fault–the kids couldn’t handle the rigor.

The problem is, exactly none of that is okay. It isn’t okay if our kids are miserable in our classrooms, or if only half the class completes homework, or if we ignore our students, or dislike them. It’s not okay if they don’t succeed. We can’t hide behind rigor and pretend that we aren’t responsible for the actual learning and growth our students make in our classrooms, and for creating the conditions under which learning and growth can take place.

Paradoxically, rigor works against the shift we are trying to make in our classrooms. We want students who are able to think critically, who are college and career ready, but we are preparing them with the idea that the best way to do it is to be inflexible, rigid, even cruel. Rigorous teaching, done badly, clearly communicates a terrible falsehood to our students: ideas and standards are much more important than you, kid–if you don’t get this, it’s your fault, and you should feel like a failure, because you are.

Basically, my point is this: rigor is a jerk.

I know this sounds harsh, and that it sounds like I’m beating up on teachers, a group I not only belong to but revere above all others. It’s because I love education and teaching and teachers that I think it is the responsibility of practicing teachers to call bullshit when we see it. To put it inelegantly, in this rigor rigmarole, we are knee deep.

So what do I suggest? I suggest that we replace the word–better yet, the idea–of rigor with a much healthier word: vigor. Merriam-Webster defines vigor as “strength, energy, determination; active mental strength; active healthy well-balanced growth; intensity of action or effect.”

Rigor assumes rigidity, a white-knuckled approach to teaching and learning that is akin to eating spinach while pinching one’s nose closed. Vigor believes that learning doesn’t have to be painful; it invites joy, life, engagement and personality to teaching and learning. Vigor doesn’t shy away from challenge, yet it rejects the idea that learning should be dehumanizing. The vigorous classroom honors students at its center, operating under the belief that the best way into a kid’s head is through her heart.