Erasing Doubt

“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” –A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

Recently, I was watching the regional competitions for American Ninja Warrior.  I’m obsessed with the level of fitness people must have to compete in this obstacle course. However, I was watching this particular Regional for one purpose—to watch Kacy Catanzaro. She was the first woman to complete the qualifying course and to complete the full course on American Ninja Warrior to qualify for nationals. I wanted to see her run for myself. The question in my head was why did it take six seasons for a woman to get this far in this competition.

In an interview following her successful run, Catanzaro explained why she thought no other woman had made it that far yet, “It’s just because there was always that doubt in the back of their minds, that no girl’s ever done it, or that some people might say no girl can do it, or girls aren’t as fast, girls aren’t as strong—all of these things that women are used to hearing.” She refused to listen to the negative thoughts, and she succeeded.

So, what does this have to do with education? Reading Catanzaro’s interview, made me think of my students. Those students that say they just aren’t good at _______.  By the time students reach middle school, they have a lot of preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do. Perhaps, their well-intentioned parents tell them that it was okay that their grades were lower in one subject. It must not have been their strength. Perhaps, a teacher told them they were good at math, but writing just isn’t their thing. Perhaps, a content area takes a bit more work for them, so they convince themselves that they will never be successful. Whatever the cause, I feel that teachers can work to erase these doubts. However, it is the “how” of erasing these doubts that can be harder to articulate.

While I am not always successful, here are a few ways that I feel I have helped students erase doubt over the years:

  1. Building positive relationships with students: As teachers, we are often warned to not be overly personal with our students. However, creating positive relationships with our students can have more of an impact than any content we teach. I personally believe the only way to build relationships in the classroom is just be myself. If my students know some of my interests, I am more likely to learn their interests. This allows me to tailor their learning.For me, laughter is the most powerful way to build relationships. I find that if I laugh openly with my students, they see me as a real person. If I can laugh at my own mistakes and openly move forward, they can as well. By creating a space where students can have fun and feel free to make mistakes, learning is accomplished by evaluating those mistakes and not hiding them.
  2. Providing meaningful feedback: I believe that providing feedback is part of building relationships with students. It is also something that I didn’t do early in my teaching career. It is an art that takes time to develop. I am still developing this skill. And, let’s face it providing meaningful feedback is time-consuming. Teachers often have so many other things to prepare that feedback is one of those tools that gets left behind. To be clear, I am not talking about writing a few comments on an assignment and moving on. Writing “good job” or “good ideas” on the page simply isn’t enough.When I was in my master’s program, my methodology professor and student adviser was an expert at providing feedback. I was in awe of how quickly she would return written work with notations throughout. Her comments were conversational and reflective. Her feedback was impactful, and it helped me hone my thinking. She didn’t just circle a phrase and say “Why?” She wrote me notes like, “How did you come to this conclusion? I don’t see your evidence for this statement.” She didn’t write “good job”. She wrote, “I like how you phrased this portion. Your ideas are succinct, and it is clear that you understood the complexities of this issue. Also, I can see you making connections to the material to make practical use of this information.” With each conversation and writing assignment, I improved because I could think critically about my work and was give the time to reflect on what I did well and where I could improve. Isn’t that the goal of teaching? To have students think reflectively AND critically.I am still working on returning feedback in a timely manner. However, students don’t seem to mind when it takes a while when they see my responses.
  3. Don’t accept “giving up”: At the beginning of the school year, I generally have students write thoughts for the upcoming year. I might ask them what they are looking forward to doing, what they aren’t looking forward to and possibly what goals they have for my class. I have the students write it down, and I will typically provide feedback on what they have written. This past school year, I had a student write that she didn’t look forward to anything in my class because she was terrible at it. Her goal was “to pass”. I took this as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. I wanted to know what I could do to make her time in my class more enjoyable since she didn’t look forward to it at all. I told her the year would be pretty long if she came in to my class trying to hurry through it. She expressed that she just wasn’t very good at my subject. She hadn’t done well the previous year (my course is a continuation of a course from sixth grade), so she wasn’t going to do well this year. Her certainty regarding her future failure was cemented when she patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t take it personally. I am just not very smart, and I am terrible at learning this stuff.”I have to admit I was taken-back by her matter-of-fact attitude, but I immediately decided to be just as matter-of-fact in my response. Before I let her walk away, I told her, “A new year, a new you.” Over the course of the year, I found every opportunity to celebrate a success. We had open discussions on how to improve on different types of assignments and ways to replicate her successes. In the end, she not only passed, she was also one of my highest achievers.

These were just a few of my ideas. How about you? Are there any ways that you work to empower students and erase doubt?

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