Rigor, as in mortis?

07 Jul

Question on teacher job application: How do you ensure that there is rigor in your classroom?

(Here’s how I would have liked to answer the above question. I gave a somewhat milder response to stay under the 1500 character max.

This is a post I started weeks ago, then found that another teacher’s similar comments on “rigor” had been picked up by a blog I follow. Guess I’ll put this out there too.)

One definition of rigor is “a sudden feeling of cold with shivering, accompanied by a rise in temperature, often with copious sweating, especially at the onset or height of a fever; short for rigor mortis.” Aside from this medical sense, rigor is associated with inflexibility, difficulty, and severity. Some educators have adopted “rigor” as a stated value, with the meaning (one would hope) being limited to “challenge.” This emasculated sense of the word may come to predominate over the traditional one, but “challenge” seems what is wanted as a word here, rbecause unlike rigor, which can be a precursor of death, challenge is an essential element of growth, including the growth we foster in education.

Where there is challenge in a classroom, the evidence manifests in two basic ways. For students with a growth mindset, there is active, interested engagement and anticipation of accomplishment. Students with a fixed mindset, in contrast, exhibit discomfort, frustration, and, if the teacher is not careful, fear of failure and the onset of mental rigor mortis. It’s easy to deal with students who enjoy challenge—they practically teach themselves if presented with appropriate guidance and resources. Creating rigor there is about connecting that natural and relatively uninhibited drive to learn with well constructed and timely lessons incorporating content and process skills, rich resources, and the means of synthesizing and applying learning. Highly motivated students who react to an overly directive or restricted approach need more freedom, while motivated but disorganized or easily distracted students might need more guidance there.

Inspiring the others, those whose basic attitude toward learning, whether academic or personal, is the teacher’s special challenge and, one hopes, gift. The teacher should continually foster an atmosphere where these students feel safe taking risks, so building community and a consistent routine is very important. These students need frequent positive feedback; they also need help connecting prior understanding with new and grasping the value of what they are learning. Pacing is also important, as the brain does not learn well under duress. Humor, a sense of being cared for and valued, and the fostering of a “need to know” drive help these insecure students to press on. If everything is in place and students experience not just external reinforcement but the personal sense of gratification that comes with success and growth, all students can enjoy challenge, and there will be no need for inducing shivering or copious sweating in pursuit of rigor in the classroom.

By the way, I heard that the teacher who started using the “rigor” term has regretted it. I agree that it’s a poor use of terminology, and that the term rigor should be reserved for medical emergencies.


Posted by on July 7, 2016 in Education


Tags: , ,

6 responses to “Rigor, as in mortis?

  1. Stephanie

    July 8, 2016 at 7:18 am

    I think it’s a very important distinction to separate simple “challenge” from “challenge, with paralyzing fear.”

  2. jdawgsrunningblog

    July 8, 2016 at 7:19 am

    you’re cool–digging these words, your take and perspectives on the whats and wherefores of classroom culture—what job(s) did you interview for?

    • toesinthedirt

      July 8, 2016 at 7:11 pm

      None yet. No calls at all. When I get back I’ll dig in again, and meet with my recent principal, who has offered to give me feedback on my application package.

      • jdawgsrunningblog

        July 9, 2016 at 9:14 am

        you are an especially great human being–the teaching profession needs you. Hopefully someone out there will have the common sense to realize that–very disappointed that that hasn’t happened yet.

      • toesinthedirt

        July 11, 2016 at 11:24 am

        Thank you for your kind words. It will work out, in one way or another.


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