Honors Chemistry my sophomore year of high school was one of the hardest classes I ever took. My teacher, Mr. Spooner, expected so much more of me than had ever been expected before. It took me months to figure out that “good enough” for other teachers was not good enough in his class. Looking back, his feedback on homework clearly outlined his high expectations.
Just because I worked for hours on my homework and could not figure out the answer was no excuse to not have explained my thought process or to not have thought further into the problem, he would say. Why wasn’t I finishing the problem? Where was I getting stuck? What if I pretended as though I got that part right and moved on? Where would that take me? I would explain my thought processes to him in person, but he wanted me to write it on the paper while I was doing the work, not discussing it the next day with him. It was okay to get the wrong answer, but it was not okay to give up and to write nothing (or too little).
By the time I finally figured out what he was asking of me and I was able to do it, I understood why he wanted it: writing out my thoughts usually generated ideas that led to the correct answer. It encouraged increased consideration of the problem and boosted my ability to problem solve. Instead of giving up, writing down why I was confused and how I thought the principals should be applied but were not working, often showed me the flaws in my thinking and made me reconsider.
Giving up too easily was never okay for Mr. Spooner and I am so grateful I had someone to teach me that lesson.
In his most recent book Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners, veteran teacher and educational writer Larry Ferlazzo explains that “There may be times when students are having difficulties meeting their goals. If and when that occurs, researchers recommend that accountability is still important and it should not be dismissed with a shrug… Find out from the student why they think they are having difficulties, elicit from them ideas on what they can do differently and perhaps provide some of your own suggestions” (2015, 31). Too often teachers (and parents) accept less from their learners than they should and fail to push hard enough.
Based on my own experience teaching and my failure to push hard enough at times, I would wager this stems from a desire to acknowledge how hard the student has already worked, how hard the work is, and a desire to keep the child engaged. But that actually often has the opposite effect. If children are not held accountable and are not held to a higher standard, they will then not push themselves to do better. They will limit themselves to those lower expectations. That is what I had been doing.
Mr. Spooner was not one of those teachers. I remember a classmate, a smart one too, once complained after getting a bad grade, “But Mr. Spooner, what about our effort? Why aren’t you trying to motivate us instead of making us feel bad about our grades? What about our self-esteem?” He responded, “I’m not here to help your self-esteem. I’m here to teach you.” I disagree. In the short-term, he did not help with self-esteem, but in the long-term, his class boosted my self-esteem more than any other. He was there to teach us to push ourselves and in our effort and eventual success we were rewarded with the knowledge that we can accomplish more difficult tasks than we thought. We did not need praise anymore. The work other teachers did to preserve our self-esteem was actually hurting us and keeping us from that knowledge that we were more capable.
Kids need some pain points to overcome challenges. Therefore, like Mr. Spooner, we need to stop saying “It’s okay” so feelings are not hurt and so that ‘self-esteem is maintained’ because that is not how it works.
Instead, Ferlazzo recommends “a strategy called ‘plussing’ that is used by Pixar animation studios with great success… ‘Using words like ‘and’ or ‘what if,’ rather than ‘but’ is a way to offer suggestions and allow creative juices to flow without fear'” (2015, 7), such as “What if you tried this?” and “And why do you think this is happening?” By asking questions starting with “and” and “what if”, judgment is removed, but students are still required to continue thinking about the problem, instead of being given permission to give up.
Ferlazzo, L. (2015). Building a community of self-motivated learners: Strategies to help students thrive in school and beyond. Routledge: New York.