The first tweet came from Chris Lehman and was about disengagement being “a cover for ‘Can you help me feel smart?’” I don’t remember exactly what the second tweet was about or whom it was from, but it had to do with exercising. My mind instantly put the two together in one giant a-ha moment that I have been contemplating ever since.
The reason these two disparate tweets resonated with me was, in part, because I had just started running. This is actually quite huge for me as I have never considered myself athletic in the least. I was a total bookworm growing up and the closest I got to sports was four-square at recess in elementary school. Whenever I walk into a gym, I nervously look around for people pointing at me and saying, “You. You don’t belong here. Get out.” Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but I am extremely self-conscious. I have spent the better part of my life avoiding any situation that will reveal my total lack of skill in this area.
After realizing how I had disengaged from exercise for decades to cover up my own feelings of inadequacy, I immediately thought of students who are forced to confront their own perceived inadequacies, in public, on a daily basis. Is it any surprise students who struggle sometimes seem disengaged? It’s a natural human reaction. We avoid what we are not good at to spare ourselves possible humiliation. What if I were asked to run in front of a large group of people every day? (Actually, I did have that happen before. It was called high school P.E., and it was beyond awful.) As an adult I would have the option to refuse to do it. But what about our kids? What options do they have? Tuning out or acting out is often their only defense.
The question becomes, then, what can we do to help them. I’ve been thinking a lot lately how my perception of myself might have been different if, instead of holding a timer in hand and telling me I had to run a mile in under ten minutes, my teachers had helped me build stamina by gradually increasing the demands. In other words, if they had met me where I was and had gently guided me forward, I might have developed a more positive attitude toward running and confidence that I could do it, which would have allowed me to experience success. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and I gave up, never having met the goal. Giving up was so much easier.
This past weekend I was working on lesson plans and again experienced the frustration of being faced with performing a task I didn’t feel up to par to complete. I am putting conscious effort into improving my instruction, trying out new strategies, and also attempting to address Common Core Standards. I was extremely stressed out and more than once thought how much easier it would be to just pull out last year’s lesson plans and teach everything the same way. Each time I run, I am faced with a similar dilemma. It would be so much easier to avoid putting myself through the torture of an activity that I know I am not very good at. Fortunately, I have kept track of my times and distances and I am able to see improvement. Though it is slow going, that improvement keeps me motivated.
In light of my own experiences, I believe more strongly than ever that the key to helping our disengaged learners is building confidence first and then gradually increasing the demands, saying, “Okay, maybe you can’t do that yet, but that’s all right because you can do this.” We need to provide them with the stepping stones that will lead them to where they need to go, give them the means to track their progress, and celebrate their successes along the way. We need to remember, too, to move them forward one manageable step at a time and not try to take giant leaps forward because someone says our students need to be at a certain point by the end of the year. We all develop at different rates, and it is unfortunate that education has determined that everybody should acquire the same set of skills at the same proficiency by the same deadline. You can standardize tests all you want, but you can’t standardize people. Why would we even want to?
In a way, I am thankful that I started running, that it is a struggle for me, and that I need to stay focused on how far I’ve come in order to not give up. It has helped me to see more clearly what some of my own students must experience every day at school. As an adult I have learned that giving up may be easier, but it isn’t very rewarding. Perhaps more than any other, that’s one lesson I hope my students learn.