“I can’t do this,” Sarah breathed in frustration. There she sat, in my office, staring desperately at her homework assignment. While some students may have chosen to fake their efforts, simply wanting to be free of an educator’s presence, Sarah was completely frozen. She had been sitting there for an hour, occasionally tapping a few keyboard keys or perusing various research sources. She seemed to be working slowly, but I assumed she may just have needed more time than the rest. As she proclaimed her frustration, I went to her and inquired about her progress. She revealed her worksheet with one answered question and declared with confidence that she was simply incapable of completing the assignment.
Sarah had dropped out of high school and now that she was back in school she was completely convinced that her intelligence level was sub-par. She was not like the other students. She did not complete all of her math and English courses. To her, this was hard evidence of her inability to complete her assignments, or even think about getting good grades.
Sarah found herself frozen by the perceived reality of her previous experiences. She felt ill-equipped and less intelligent than her peers. I believe many students find themselves in this position today, for various reasons. Perhaps teachers in the past, out of what they thought was sympathy, have allowed them to pass particular grade levels without fully meeting all of the required expectations. Maybe the student has cheated more than they would admit and now find themselves completely unprepared for more difficult concepts. Or perhaps the student had a tragic experience in their academic career that shattered their confidence. Maybe you see one of your students in Sarah. You might have encountered a child just as convinced as Sarah that their lack of understanding is not an absence of experience or training, but that they possess sub-par intellect.
We have the ability of transforming a student’s entire mindset through the simple tools of belief and encouragement.
This was certainly the case with Sarah. In fact, in my years as an educator, she has been the student most paralyzed by her own version of truth. She not only thought she was stupid, she would verbally declare it over herself in public and corporate moments. I did not realize the depth of her reality until later. However, once I initially discovered her numbing thought pattern, as she sat there in my office, I began to walk her through each individual question on the homework. I explained what each was asking her for, the methods of research to find the information, and examples of answers for critical thinking evaluations.
Throughout the entire process, her language was completely negative and doubtful, filled with irritation. She was convinced, despite my patient efforts. After another hour or so, however, as I and an upperclassmen student attempted to continue to explain and break down the information, she slowly began to answer a few of the questions. As time passed and she gradually made her way through the homework, I secretly rejoiced at each answered question.
That was not the last time Sarah was in my office. For the next couple of months, every homework assignment was an event. It was an occasion that required reminding Sarah that she was intelligent and capable. Often, it is also required a refresher tutoring session, reviewing concepts, questions, and tools and methods to complete the work. Each time was filled with more self-proclaimed declarations of her incompetence and stupidity. “I can’t do it.” “I’m not smart.” “I just don’t get it.” She was simply convinced of her intelligence level. Even when she did well on her assignments, she was still sure she was beneath the level of her peers.
It was not until almost the end of the school year that something changed. As we worked on an assignment, Sarah did it again. She declared, “I can’t do it.” As I drew my breath in to correct her statement, I was cut short. To my surprise, Sarah said, “I shouldn’t say that. I can do this. I know I can.” It was as if fireworks were exploding inside of me! Sarah had been fairly successful in her assignments up until then, but she still felt incapable of navigating them on her own. She did not think she could accomplish the task without being guided step by step. That day though, Sarah began to believe what she had been told all those months. Sarah was not just being given concepts to pass a particular course, she was being trained to believe she was capable of accomplishing academic tasks and that she had intellectual value to bring to the table.
I believe this is the most powerful tool we can offer as educators. We have the ability of transforming a student’s entire mindset through the simple tools of belief and encouragement. As students ourselves, we have all experienced the difference between a dogmatic instructor and a supportive teacher. Who did we all love and favor? We adored the teacher who believed we could move mountains if we wanted to, that our voice and thoughts mattered, and that we were capable of achieving great things in the classroom and beyond.
So how can we be this type of instructor? I believe this is achieved by intentionally recognizing strengths in each student, celebrating even their smallest successes, and using moments of correction or alignment as an opportunity to inspire higher levels of greatness. When we frame instruction in the context of what is possible, rather than emphasizing what is lacking, we inspire students to strive forward. Equality is also key. We all have students that we find easier to celebrate or who comprehend material more quickly, but we cannot allow ourselves to become so enraptured with our star pupils that we forfeit the opportunity to motivate the rest of our class. Positivity is vital. I certainly am not suggesting that students need never be corrected, aligned, or redirected. However, our approach needs to be one of guidance, not critical accusation of the student’s original attempt.
We educators truly hold enormous power. Through our word choice, our attitude, our level of encouragement, and our implementation of positive reinforcement, we have the ability to produce not just intelligent graduates. We can form secure members of society, confident in their ability to contribute to the world around them and perhaps to even change it for the greater good. May all of us educators, teachers, and administrators choose to be superheros this school year. May we employ our powers of encouragement and belief and watch our students soar to the heights we always dreamed they could reach.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, JD Hancock.