There is nothing that makes an instructor-type person feel more frustrated and/or helpless than to watch a student, who you know is well-prepared and otherwise studious participant in all areas, collapse emotionally while taking an exam.
You sit there proctoring the exam, and you see said student freak out--be it crying, sweating profusely, or their eyes start growing to the size of flying saucers. You can't, by protocol, do a damned thing...you can't tell them anything, you can't give them extra time...nothing. And you know that this person studied, perhaps even over-studied. Worse yet is when they tend to excel in every other area, but when an exam comes into their presence, they can't handle it.
Their brain goes into hyperspeed. They start to hyperventilate. Telling them to "just keep breathing" or "calm down" actually works in reverse, making them panic even more. Will the others in class notice? What if I fail!? Holy )(*()_)(&_) And then the tears tend to fall.
In over 12 years of teaching, I've come across most all of the standard and uncommon learning disabilities. Most all of them, either I know a few teaching techniques to help the students, or I can recognize elements that I can address. But test anxiety...ugh. Not only can I not combat it, I don't even understand it. See, I always loved exams...ok, ok, 'love' is too strong a word. But I never did shrink from them...they were simply puzzles for me to play. Or to BS my way through, either way tests are challenges, and I like challenges. Sure, I occasionally was nervous (see: PhD comprehensive exams), but never having panic attacks. So for me to council a person who suffers from test anxiety, well, would be like a professional skydiver to council me on my fear of falling when up on a high platform. How in the hell can you empathize properly and not sound condescending??
This week was midterm week...well, for me, at least. All 3 of my main courses had their midterms. Thursday's class is a special group, with personalities that shine and eager pupils who want to know everything about everyone. One of my honors students was freaking out a bit, but was still upbeat. Then, halfway through the exam, I heard a lot of heavy breathing...like someone was trying to calm themselves down. I looked around, but I couldn't figure out who it is...and in a room with 9 students, it should be easy to do. Ten minutes later, I hear the even heavier breathing and sniffling. I look up, and my honors student is doing the sniffling. But knowing that she suffers from allergies, and the pollen is thick right now, I don't know if she's suffering an allergy attack, or what. Another ten minutes go by, and I see that there are tears rolling down her face...and the sniffling is being stifled unsuccessfully. And my heart sinks.
She ends up being the last to finish...and I technically gave her an extra 5 minutes, seeing as no one else was in the classroom, and no one would know. Once she turned in her exam, she started sobbing...the listening comprehension portion of the exam freaked her out and got her off rhythm, and so she felt like she ran out of time. After talking with her for a few minutes, trying to get her to calm down a bit, I started the slow walk home. I really didn't want to grade her exam, fearing sections of blank whiteness.
Eventually, it had to be done...I had to start grading the exams from that Thursday class, including that of the honors student who freaked out. As I went through the exams, including hers, I found that she wasn't doing that bad...yes, she had sections where she fouled up, but not so much that there was incomprehensible Spanish. Yes, she ran out of time, but there was no catastrophic or epic fail. In fact, as I totted up her score, she passed...barely, with about 4% to spare, but she passed.
At that point, I felt a tear streak down my cheek.
Edit to include the PS:
Last night, after writing this, I emailed the student to let her know about her grade...I never do this, and make all of them wait until I pass the exam back. But I let her know how she did, and what I think the next steps are. Within 20 minutes she replied...and happily. I can now enjoy the weekend