I stopped by to check in on a third grade student who had been having a rough start to his week. Great kid, big heart, but is a student many would consider a frequent flyer to the office.
I met with his teacher earlier that day, and received the great news that he was really doing well, and was giving each assignment his very best. So when I stopped by right before recess I was grinning from ear to ear…”Buddy, I am so proud of you! We have to celebrate your day, how would you like to celebrate?”
He looked at me, smiled, and yelled with confidence oozing: “I want to take you down at basketball!”
I laughed and said, “Alright buddy, game on.”
We began to walk towards my office to get my basketball...because every principal has a basketball in his/her office...and as we took each step I heard this young man say things like: “Oh Mr. Steele, I am going to juke you so bad. Oh Mr. Steele, you have no chance, I got game, I can make any shot from any spot on the court. You have no chance, I’m young and your old. Your cool Mr. Steele, but I got this!”
Like any mature adult I responded appropriately by saying, “Man, you are going down! You have no chance, this old guy will be schooling you all over the court.”
We grabbed the ball, ran outside, and naturally he started with the ball. He dribbled back and forth, through his legs, all the while saying, “You have no chance Mr. Steele, you are doing down, get ready, I am about to juke you so bad! You are old and I have game...”
He faked to the left, was about to dribble to the right, when I stuck out my hand, stole the ball, turned around past the three point line and shot. To my amazement it went in, all net. “Well how about that? I guess this old man still has some game left!”
His body language changed immediately. His shoulders slumped over, he grabbed the ball, threw it towards the field, and with a tear in his eye said, “I suck, I can’t win, I am horrible at basketball. You win Mr. Steele, let’s go inside.”
Let me stop with this story right there… We need to pause, we need to think...what just happened? This third grade student had many different possibilities to choose from as a reaction to my three-point-shot after the steal: He could have congratulated me on the shot, said I got lucky and continued with the trash talk, grabbed the ball and tried again, even admitted that maybe I wasn’t as bad as he thought. Yet none of those options were chosen. What was? Instant defeat…Why was this? How did a student go from total confidence to complete defeat within five seconds? What just happened?
If we are honest, what happened with that young man is the same thing that happens in our classrooms all the time. A task seems too difficult, and so instead of trying, many students give up. Why is this?
Imagine I asked you, a grown adult, to read the following sentence: O juuuwidlg alkiffdas lkasgjijl askljsdifhg qeyyyews uyyysdfkn jh asdkfljkjasdf.
You look at it, and as an adult you are not afraid to ask for help. After all, you have been around a while, you know how to read, so you simply ask, “Hey Ryan, can you help me here? I don’t even think this is a sentence...”
I smile and say, “Of course! It is absolutely a sentence, notice the capital letter at the front and punctuation at the end. You can do this, please try harder.”
You look at it closely again…”Yeah, I don’t know.”
”What do you mean you don’t know? Surely you know the alphabet, surely you know what each letter is. Sound it out! Try harder.”
You look at each letter in the second word and try to sound them out, “J--uuuu-w-i-d--llll-g. I don’t know what it means!”
I walk over to you, read the word aloud, and then ask you, “How hard can that be? The first word obviously means to lay on your stomach and crawl using your forearms. Here is a picture of what this word looks like. Now read the rest.”
You try, but just don’t understand. Imagine I give you another sentence, and then another, and then after reading it out loud to you, I give you a test based on a story written in the same fashion, and you have 30 minutes to read that story and take a test. What do you do? If you are honest, odds are you wouldn’t even try...and that’s after failing to read the new text a few times.
Now imagine you are a student, and you were well behind in kindergarten...always in the red group, always being pulled out of class. You were given vision tests and sat in meetings with your parents, and heard about your potential, but still….to the red group you go. You struggled in first, and second, and every day in third. For four years you had teachers that loved you, parents that love you, but the work has always been hard. You have spent your entire young life feeling like a failure. Feeling like you aren’t smart enough, good enough, talented enough… Eventually, and for some this moment comes much sooner than for others, you realize something...you can’t do it, so why even try?
I have sat with teachers and parents so angry with a child, so angry at his or her unwillingness to try, saying things like he just doesn't want to. She’s not willing to take on the challenge. He’s not willing to be successful.
Here is the thing...There is a big difference between a challenge and a wall just too tall to climb. There is a big difference between not wanting to and feeling unable to. Children are smart, they are only human, and I have never met anyone who enjoys feeling like a failure. There are many students I have worked with, even adults, that are motivated by a challenge...heck, I am one of those people...If the task is difficult I am engaged, however, my engagement comes from a place of past success, not failure. Whether its academics, sports, or even life, if you are never successful, if you never get a chance to experience achievement, why would you believe you could?
If only our kids could see themselves as we see them. If only our students could believe in themselves the way we believe in them. As educators, we strive to give our students everything we can to ensure their success. We work countless hours, spend time looking at data and planning for each child. We unapologetically desire for each child to have the best future possible, and strive to challenge each and every student along the way. Yet we can’t forget this one important thing...Not every child sees themselves the way we do. Not every child wakes up believing they can, believing today is the day they break through the struggle. Today is the day they concur that math test, take down that reading passage, finally sit with a friend at lunch.
We have to stop and remember that we need to constantly tell our students we love and believe in them. Stop and show them we care, and give them opportunities to experience successful moments, no matter how small it may seem. Building self-efficacy is a vital part of what we do, and what we are called to do as educators.
I ran over to the field next to the basketball hoop and grabbed the ball. I placed it on the ground in front of the student with a tear in his eye. “Here is what I know...I might be old, but I promise 33 isn’t as old as you might think when it comes to playing sports… I have been playing basketball for much longer than you have been alive and I am two feet taller than you...but guess what? None of that matters, because you are clearly pretty good, and the student I know may not win, but he is going to go down giving it all hes got. So...you going to try and teach me a thing or two or what?”
He smiled, picked up the ball, and said “You are going down!”
Imagine if our students saw themselves the way we do...Imagine if they believed in themselves the way we believe in them. Maybe, just maybe, they would have the courage to take a risk, keep trying, and find the success they so desperately crave, instead of giving up the second a task feels impossible. It’s our job to remind them of who they are to us, why the sky's the limit, and why they can truly conquer the challenges ahead...and one day...who knows...they might just start to believe in themselves the way we do already.