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Teaching on the edge

Fourth in a series of articles on my first year of teaching.

Every day, I felt like I was on the edge of big breakthrough with my students. Each one of them has so much potential and is so close to being successful. Once a student makes a choice to succeed, they could learn so much and do so well, but they just need a little push in the right direction. Each day I would try to give that push, and most days I would fail. Time and time again, my students chose not to jump off and soar to success but would just continue walking in the same direction straight off the cliff like lemmings and crash into the rocks below.

Read more below to find out what was missing from my classes.

The students are so close to success, and yet so far. Because of their unlocked potential, they are close. But because of the fact that they are so far behind, they don't really have the tools to succeed even when they try. The first and foremost tool that they are missing is resilience. Loraine and I talk a lot about resilience being the single most important character trait, and my students lack resilience in a big way. Even when they do make the choice to start trying, they give up at the first road block. Resilience is the skill that will allow them to turn their seemingly insurmountable excuses and disadvantages into challenges that can be overcome.

Along with resilience comes patience. As we talk about the "MTV generation, it's not surprising that so many of my students think that, like everything else in today's culture, learning should be quick, easy, and instant. While meeting the minimum requirements for graduation really are easy, there are few shortcuts to true success. For whatever reason, the system has utterly failed in showing students that there is a difference between the two.

I think I successfully convinced most students to try to work hard in my class at least once. That was done by my shear enthusiasm about the subject, which showed the students, "this stuff is cool and worthwhile." I engaged them and they did try. What I think I failed at was convincing them to try again when that first effort failed. I can owe this failure to a complete lack of preparation for the problem. My principal told me that my first job with these low achieving students was to engage them in the material, so that's what I did. He wasn't even sure that was possible with this group of students, so we never really discussed step two. However, it turns out engagement was not nearly enough.

Each day, we returned to the same problem. I had to convince my students to try again. We could have made so much more progress if I had been able to engender resilience. Instead of the daily emotional struggle to motivate the students to try, we could have spent the time actually trying, failing, and trying again until we did finally succeed. If we could find a way to get into that cycle, success would grow very quickly for these bright and talented students. But instead, I found myself starting over from square one almost every day.

The daily let downs are one of the reasons why teaching was so exhausting for me. Every day I would come home and collapse like a zombie. I would sit down in front of the TV and just veg, sometimes succeeding at grading student papers and some days just being incapable of functioning. Only when it was "time to go to bed" would I turn off the TV and finally realize that I needed to prepare the following day's lesson. You'd think that this vicious cycle could be healed, but teaching just took so much energy out of me that I needed time to recover each day. If I started working too early, my resilience would not kick in and it would seem hopeless to design another lesson that would "fail as miserably as the one the day before." After the down time, I would enthusiastically come up with an exciting idea for how to engage the students on the next day's material.

By the second semester, things got a lot smoother for me, which seems to illustrate my point that I was teaching on the edge every night. I only had to make it around one semester of misery before my success started to grow, and it was resilience that brought my through. I don't know how I built that resilience, nor do I know how to teach it. But it seems absolutely essential in order to get these students to succeed. I think that so much of the rest will fall into place once the students have resilience, which is why I am optimistic about teaching each one of these students. They are all right on the edge of success.

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