The Hard Truth

Context: I am a math teacher. I teach the subject students love to hate. By the time I get them, unfortunately, I am fighting years of hatred of a subject that doesn’t necessarily have to be hated, but certainly is. (Probably by most reading this post, as well.) By the time they get to me, most aren’t even willing to try. Slowly, this fixes over time in my class. But, there are always those days that set off old habits. This post is based on one of those days – I gave out a test review. Oh no, the horror. (This was from a while back – I did not post it at the time it happened.)
Setting: I am not a teacher that sits at her desk and won’t teach. I often create videos so I can “team teach”, so to speak, with myself. My video teaches the lesson (the students often have a note taking guide to follow along), and I wander around the room quietly answering additional questions, so students can feel safe asking them. This allows them to not feel singled out, because they can pull me aside and ask things quietly, privately, without feeling as if everyone is watching them and they are interrupting the lesson. I can also observe students carefully, and I can usually tell when students are confused by the looks on their faces, and address questions privately with them. I don’t use the videos as substitutes for me – I’m up and about while the videos are going, teaching and moving about the room at the same time, allowing for multiple learning styles and one-on-one time.
When there are not videos, I have activities and games to break up the monotony, and other types of lessons. I do everything I can to make the subject fun, interesting, and inviting for my students. And I try to make my classroom a safe environment to learn, ask questions, and to make mistakes. My students do not get yelled at for asking questions, for needing something shown again, or for not understanding. I’ll show them over and over if need be, and in different ways. Doesn’t bother me.
Purpose: This is the letter that I wish I could give to them. This comes mainly from frustration as I sit and watch perfectly capable students (ones who have shown me over and over that they are capable) sit and tell me they are incapable of answering one single question on a 30 question review for a semester exam. (The first two days, they try it on their own with their notes as their guides. I step in the third day and help with anything they couldn’t find answers to or need additional help on – this allows them a safe environment to make mistakes when it doesn’t count as much. Better for them to make mistakes on a review than on a test, where it counts for a major grade.) Basically, I had a large group of students, today, who did not even want to try at all.
Reality: I know it would do no good, but I’ll at least write my thoughts down. Writing it in my blog will make me feel a little better, even if it won’t go much of anywhere. I have told my students similar things before, and some take it to heart, but most just shrug it off.
Feeling: Sometimes, as a teacher, we feel so helpless…

Here is the hard truth. 

You can’t learn without making mistakes. Making mistakes is what makes learning stick – if there are no mistakes being made, there is nothing that needs to be learned. A teacher can “show” you over and over and over and over, but you won’t learn it by watching it. You have to work with it on your own and interact with the problems, too.
You can’t make mistakes if you are not willing to try. You can’t try if you are not willing to put yourself out there and make an attempt at approaching a problem. So what if you approach it the wrong way? You learned that is the wrong way to approach it. Good! Try something else. It might work. It might not. Either way, something learned. Look in your notebook. We might have something in there that we have done recently that might give you a hint. Ask questions. We have been doing this stuff all semester. I’ve watched you all semester, I know you can do it. I’ve seen you do it. Not pretend to do it, but actually do it.
Yes, I watch that closely, that’s one of many reasons I make the videos. It lets me watch you more closely, and interact with you more fully. I can actually watch your learning better. I can see you interacting with the material better because the virtual me is handling the delivery, and I am able to better observe how well you absorb it. That’s how I am able to see when you have questions, and I seem to arrive at your desk just in time. I can see the confusion on your face, and I see when you aren’t confused, too. I can see the light bulb in your brain flicker on and off.
In a few days, I am going to go over as much of this as we can. So, for today, try something. If it doesn’t work, ok. No big deal. Star it, and move on. Try another problem. But for goodness sake, STOP THIS EXCUSE MAKING. Stop the “I can’t” and the “I’m tired” and the “But I don’t want to” and just do something. Even if it’s wrong, get your mind working toward something other than complaining.
I have NEVER yelled at any of you for making a math mistake. Ever. Not once. I have never been disappointed because you did not understand. Or because you forgot and need to be shown again. Not once have I fussed at you, or gotten after you, or even been the least bit disappointed that you needed help with a concept, no matter how many times I have had to go over it again – as long as you were giving me effort and trying your best.
If you can complete five of the questions, that’s five more than you could at the beginning of the school year. You may not think that is progress, but I do! If you can complete ten of them, even better! If you can complete fifteen of them, great! Whatever you can do now, if it is better than you could do before, then you have learned something. That, beyond anything else, is what you are here to do, is it not?
For what it matters, I believe every single one of you is capable of doing this work. I believe every single one of you is capable of completing every problem. I believe every single one of you can do this, you might need my help on a few of them to remind you how to do them, because goodness knows this is a lot of material to remember, but every single one of you is capable. You are smarter than you think you are. I have seen it in EVERY one of you. And don’t you try to say I haven’t, because I have. And I tell you when I see it. And I see you smile, because when I tell you, then you FEEL it, too. You know it. You know you know it. And that feels good.
BUT, I also that every single one of you needs to believe in yourself. Because me believing in you isn’t enough. And I believe that if you don’t change the way you are thinking, and fast, you are going to struggle. If you walk into something already convinced you are going to fail, you are as good as predicting the future. Your mind is a powerful thing, and it can make things happen. If your brain already knows you expect to fail, it won’t work as hard, and it won’t think as hard, and it won’t try as hard to recall information, because it already knows that you don’t expect to pass anyway. So it doesn’t have to work hard. It’s kinda lazy. It’s as bad as a teenager. If it knows it doesn’t have to, it won’t. And if you’ve already decided you’re going to fail, it knows it doesn’t have to.
Learning is 70% mindset, and 30% knowledge. Someone can have 100% of the knowledge, and still fail every assignment and test, because they don’t believe in themselves. YOU have to believe YOU can do it. I believe you can, but I am not the one sitting in there having to do it. You are. YOU have to believe in yourself. YOU have to not give up on yourself. YOU have to decide you’re worth it, YOU have to decide you’re good enough, and YOU have to realize you are the amazing person that I already know you are. You can be the smartest person in the world, and you can know everything in the world there is to know, and still be unsuccessful if you don’t believe in yourself.
I can’t teach you to believe in yourself. There’s no certification for that… but I can keep pushing you. And you will keep getting mad at me. Because I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to stop telling you that you can do it, and I’m not going to stop pointing out that you’re selling yourself short, and that you are smarter than you are giving yourself credit for, and that you are capable of doing this. I’m not going to stop telling you that you can do this. And you’re not going to stop getting angry with me. Because I’m still not going to do it for you, because I know you can do it. And that may mean that you don’t get what you want from me right now.
That may mean you eventually grow to hate me. It has happened in the past, and I’m sure it’ll happen again in the future, but I’m ok with that. If hating me will someday help you see that you don’t need me to do it for you – that you can do it without me, then it’s worth it. Because you know what? YOU CAN! You can do this stuff. You are capable. You may thank me for it someday, or you may not. Either way, it’s ok.
It’s the hard truth. To learn, you HAVE to make mistakes. To make mistakes, you have to be willing to try. To be willing to try, you have to be willing to risk putting yourself out there.
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