What causes a student to give up? I think different things. For me it was facing daily put-downs from a classmate. Some students lose their spark when they don’t connect with their teacher or when they feel adults are disappointed in them. Others feel the majority of their classmates passing them up and leaving them behind and begin to accept hopelessness. Certainly there are many causes.
A wonderful man in my church once said, “Every child should have an adult, other than their parents, who is crazy about them.” As teachers we should be crazy about our students! We’re their cheerleaders! Half of their day is spent in our care, we need to cheer for them everyday!
I choose to believe in my students, so they will choose to believe in themselves. One way I do this is by candidly sharing my own struggles.
A student of mine who struggled with reading and spelling was one of those little guys who’s light looked like it was fading. He withdrew from an activity or lesson when he was wrong. I saw it happening and I didn’t know what to do.
The reading and spelling issues were the root of the problem, but first I needed to address the confidence issues and failure mindset that were getting in the way of his growth. It was clear he didn’t like being wrong, but he didn’t recognize that being wrong is a step toward being right! Of course, he didn’t know failure can lead to success. I needed to teach him that perseverance is more valuable than being right all the time!
Every teacher will have a different way of communicating this truth because every teacher comes from a different background. I come from the background of being the struggling reader, the flighty “spacey” student who looked out the window a lot, the one who didn’t turn in my homework because I only had it half done and chose to look irresponsible for doing nothing instead of settling for something.
I decided to share these personal struggles and tell my students about how I learned perseverance and finally became proud of myself. I told them I didn’t feel like a good reader when I was their age. I was a slow reader and at the time I thought that meant I was a “bad” reader.
When I first had this conversation with my class, it went like this:
“In fact, I’m still a slow reader. I’m always the last teacher finished when the principal asks us to read an article,” I told them. “Do you think the other teachers make fun of me when they finish a long time before me?”
They had mixed answers to this. Most said the teachers didn’t make fun of me, but a few thought they might.
I answered, “No, they never make fun of me. They wait quietly because they treat me with respect. They know that everyone learns differently. I’m better at some things than they are, but they are better at reading.”
Next I asked them, “Do you guys still think I’m smart? Or do you think I’m not smart enough to be your teacher since I’m a very slow reader?” They all answered, “You’re the best teacher in the world!” I explained that even people who get wrong answers and struggle with their schoolwork can be whatever they want if they learn perseverance.
At this point, I pulled out my cap and gown from my college graduation and put it on. They students gasped. It was a really fun moment. I described my graduation ceremony. I told them how hard I had to work to finish college and earn the cap and gown. They were silent as I told them that sometimes I cried and got very frustrated with my work when it was hard.
I wrote the word “perseverance” on the white board. I took off the cap and gown and said, “When I catch one of my students persevering through something that is very hard for them, I’ll know they deserve to wear a cap and gown!” I hung the cap and gown in the corner behind my desk.
For two weeks the gown hung there and the kids forgot about it. I was watching for my struggling students. I was determined to catch one of them persevering. One morning when we were reading our Science papers in small groups, I noticed that my little guy was persevering through the tough text. He kept stumbling over words and friends helped him and corrected him. He didn’t withdraw or get frustrated when he said a word wrong. This was the moment!
I stood up and said, “Wait! You’re showing perseverance! You deserve a cap and gown!” There were oh’s and ah’s as I helped him put on the cap and gown. The tone in the classroom was as if I had knighted him! We went quietly back to work in our reading groups; but his school year changed in an instant. He was so proud of himself; the whole class was envious.
After that day, I was able to more easily address the reading and spelling needs because his mind and heart were open to learning. That day he learned to believe in himself.
That’s the power of sharing our own struggles with students. They learn to believe in themselves when they learn that perseverance is better than being right.