Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it. ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
This quote hit home…in a big way! I am a ‘do-er’ by nature and learning is part and parcel of who I am. Without it, I know that I would be lost. That said, being true to myself is something of a fairly new concept to me, a philosophy that I needed to figure up as a seriously grown-up adult. Coming from a certain background as a child, conforming was the expectation, so there weren’t many opportunities to understand or to learn about who I really was. I tried to emulate my peers with my lack of fashion sense. I refused certain outings because they weren’t ‘cool’ enough. I stayed away from certain peer groups to avoid social suicide. I didn’t share a lot about my personal life so that nobody had an opportunity to mock me. I didn’t put myself out there so that I wouldn’t be judged. I made ridiculously inappropriate choices in life to fit in. This lifestyle followed me throughout my adolescence and most of my adult life, until I decided that this was not who I was, nor whom I chose to be. A rather liberating feeling!
I have learned that making mistakes is a part of growing up…of learning…and of becoming the best version of myself. I have learned that it is okay to head out the door, decked out in a milk costume and a tutu for a great cause…simply because it’s for a great cause. If the neighbors are questioning my fashion sense, so be it. I have learned that I do not have to be liked by everybody…but I do have to like myself. I have learned that pushing myself outside my comfort zone allows me to grow, and if I look ridiculous in the process, that’s okay. I’m getting better every time I do so. I have learned that taking the time to be grateful for all the awesomeness in my life makes the little things all the sweeter, the big moments extraordinary and the painful ones easier to swallow. I know this because I am getting better at being human.
Yet, I also realize that life hasn’t really changed all that much since my childhood. There are still children who will continue to make ridiculous decisions that impact their lives because they want to fit in, even though what they are doing goes against every fiber of their being deep down. There are still children who work so hard to impress everyone around them, forgetting that the first person that they need to answer to is themselves. This misguided perspective leads to crazy levels of anxiety, depression and such deep-seeded sadness in many of our students at such young ages, that it boggles the mind.
How do we help students understand who they really are so that they can continue on a path to becoming their truest version of themselves? There is no magic bullet, or cure-all for students. But as educators, we can make the effort to practice what we preach. And we need to be doing this when they are little people, so that they have a chance to let the message sink in…I mean really sink in…so that they can walk the talk, and allow themselves to be just that…themselves…despite the pressures around them.
What does that mean for the adults in the building? What can we be doing so that our students not only hear what we are saying, but are learning from what we are doing?
Celebrate your failures.
Be okay with making mistakes. Celebrate your failures as stepping stones to your success. Laugh about them. Do not hide behind them or pretend that they didn’t happen. Those errors can bring hilarity to your world, a starter for a great story or an extraordinary memory. They can also make your future successes all the more exhilarating because reaching your goal hasn’t been all that easy.
What does this look like in a classroom? By modeling a writing assignment à la Optimal Learning Model, students see you crossing out your initial ideas to develop something better. The perfectionists in the room learn that there is no shame in striking out words, taking out ideas and adding something new in the editing process… this just makes the writing stronger. When you have a less than fantastic day, own it and admit to your students that you weren’t being your best self. Students will learn that we are human, that we make mistakes, that we recognize them and that we can learn from them to be better at what we are doing. When a lesson tanks, share your learning process with your students and then demonstrate what you will iterate to make it a better learning experience for them. The list of what you can do to celebrate those failures is long, but opportunities exist every day to show them that there is a strength to be had in doing so.
Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if’.
Don’t worry about what your neighbors think or how your peers perceive you. If you want to try something, do it. Try it. Learn from it. I have a bucket list that I started 20 years ago. Much of what is on this list are activities and learning experiences that take me out of my comfort zones. My attempt at cake decorating for a friend’s sister’s wedding was a colossal failure of the Leaning Tower of Pisa variety, but I learned from it (and laughed a whole lot in the process). Rock-climbing lead to many scrapes, bruises, calluses, and backslides, but it also gave me some of the most extraordinary views and amazing friendships. Writing my first blog terrified the hell out of me, but I love writing, so it’s become my thing, despite the fact that very few see what I put out there.
As educators, we need to be sharing these learning experiences with our students, giving them the opportunity to take risks with their learning and being more than okay with the bumps along the way. How do we do this? Genius Hour projects are great opportunities for students to explore their ideas and passions. This process allows them to develop their own self-expression, to learn more about themselves and to iterate when the end product isn’t what they were hoping for. Either way, we are inviting them to take risks with their learning and celebrating the fact that they are doing so.
Educators can also give students multiple opportunities to iterate their ideas, to try something new or to tackle a problem from a different vantage point, whether this is while solving a math problem, finding a solution to a driving question or inventing something. These learning experiences push them to take risks with their learning, and to grow as a result.
Take the time to breathe.
Showing yourself some self-love is a crucial part to your mental health, as is taking time to breathe, but it seems that this is often the last thing that we pay attention to. As adults, we are constantly running to and from activities, obligations and deadlines. This is no different for our students. With multiple activities, a social life, homework and family obligations, there is little to no downtime for children these days. So if we want them to have healthy adult lives, with insight into what makes them tick, and what they need to do to be self-aware and completely in love with themselves, we need to help them develop strategies to do so. These include mindfulness techniques that can be incorporated into daily activities. Doing so a few minutes each day can teach students to remain centered, even when the going gets tough. Giving them some downtime to be still and to do something that doesn’t require assessment also provides an opportunity to breathe. This can be as simple as offering time for reading for pleasure or tackling an element of their Genius Hour project.
Use your words.
At the same time, our self-talk has a way of deciding our fate. Sometimes, the negativity takes precedence over anything else in our minds, and so we don’t push ourselves to take those risks for fear of failure…of being laughed at…of not being perfect. It stands to reason then that the words that we use in a classroom can also go a long way to supporting a child’s image of themselves. In A.J. Juliani’s recent blog, How To Win Friends and Influence Students, he spoke about 19 words that have a tremendous impact on a child’s engagement in class. According to study done by psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia and elsewhere, these words make a difference in whether students will actively participate in revising their work or not, words that support creating a sense of belonging and community, and of believing in them.
‘I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.’
At the same time, modeling how we talk about ourselves gives students an opportunity to see it in action. Something along the lines of, ‘I wasn’t satisfied with the way that this lesson went, so this is an opportunity to make it better. This is what I’d like to try…’ goes alot further than, ‘I wasn’t satisfied with this lesson, so I’m getting rid of it.’ One demonstrates an openness to iteration and learning from something that didn’t work. The other emphasizes that we can’t use what doesn’t work. I prefer Option A.
There are many opportunities in a day to help our students develop into their best selves. We just have to be concious of our efforts in doing so. In that way, everybody wins!