Think tax day is stressful? Try dealing with the fear of failure
April is a pretty good metaphor for a day at school. It begins with jokes and laughs (April Fools' Day) and proceeds to the stress and tension of tax day. And it's only half over!
In the morning, teachers line the hallways to greet their charges. There is laughter and the mellifluous pitch of energetic greetings, as the sea of backpacks divides and merges, swirling around islands of calm. They are almost joyous -- well, there are smiles -- as they file past and find their way to desks and chairs. This crispness is the first kick of the day for teachers, and it's one we work hard to carry forward. Unfortunately, even the most upbeat of children can go from 60 to zero by midday.
One of the discouraging aspects of having student failures as a result of our educational system is that despite the stress and pressure and alienation that come from failure, we know no one wants to feel this way. Today's lesson looks at the question, "What can we do about it?"
There are several causative factors that can stress a student as severely as a couple of missing donation receipts at 8 p.m. on April 15. They are emotional, educational and social. They don't want to fail. This is the social piece. If they are going to fail, in front of their peers or when they get home, then how can they belong? They fail. That's the educational piece. We have set a standard and taught, often in a quite standardized way, to that standard, and in the end, they might not meet the standard. That is 50 fathoms of pressure right there: and it is only mid-term. They are failures. This is the emotional piece. It is probably true of students as much as any of us: if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… well they can start to believe very quickly that they are failures.
Now, I know that there are some of you out there who view failure as the natural result of having school, and that you will argue there are lots of good lessons to be learned from failure. And, up to a point, all teachers agree with you. However, these lessons cannot be learned from failure if the student is not ready for the lesson. Imagine teaching trigonometry (Imagine! And thank your lucky stars for those who do and enjoy it). Imagine teaching trig to a student struggling with multiplication. There won't be a lot learned. If a student isn't any more ready to learn from those "hard knocks" of failure than she is ready for sines and cosines, chances are she won't learn how to benefit from failure any better.
What I want you to do and what you want me to do and what we want everyone to do is teach the children how to learn from failure.
For this, we need kids who are resilient. Kids who can laugh when the sugar is salt, when the water splashes on their head. Kids who can take a joke; kids who have learned perspective. To teach them this we need to assure them:
There are people around who they can trust and who love them; People who will set limits for them; People who can demonstrate for them how to do things right by the way we do things. My dad used to escape this one: "Don't do as I do," he would quip, "do as I say." I chose to do neither, but that's another column for another day.
Of course we want to teach our students how to do things on their own while at the same time letting them know we are here to help them, help them when they are sick and help them when they are in danger or need to learn.
We also need to help the children of Sherwood discover that they are individuals that people can like and love. We want them to realize the pleasure of doing nice things for others and expressing their concern for others. Our district-wide behavior system encourages respect for oneself and others as well as the willingness to be responsible for what each individual does. While going out on this limb, each student needs to know, really KNOW, that in the end, things will be all right
Finally, we as teachers, we as a community and we as parents must help each student come to understand that they can always talk to others about things that frighten them; find ways to solve problems; and learn ways to figure out when is a good time to talk to someone or be proactive.
These are just some of the things we can do about the educational, emotional and social fallout from school. They are just other lessons, often embedded in the curriculum, that teachers have to cover in an already challenging schedule.
I meet with one student for 10 or 15 minutes almost every day. Together we review the success of the previous day and discuss the nature of the shortcomings. Then, with devout regularity, we attack the heart of the matter for him and so many more: things he can do to control himself when he feels like doing something not right or dangerous. Little by little both of us have seen changes. But some things can take a lifetime to learn.
Now, where did I put that W-4…?