I’ve been a teacher for more than twenty years. I noticed along the way that many of my students’ favorite phrases were, “I can’t…” Most of the time, what they “couldn’t” do was accomplish a skill they had just been introduced to.
Of course it was going to be awkward, challenging and imperfect. Isn’t that how learning goes? Is there another way to learn something new that I’m not aware of?
No matter what I did with the students who stated, “I can’t” I was forever reassuring their capabilities. My efforts to reassure never ended and with each reassurance, my student’s spirit seemed to deflate. How on earth was this possible? I thought.
One day, a spirited, outspoken first-grader decided to protest my reassurance, giving up entirely. She went and sat on a stack of gymnastics mats against the wall, crossed her arms and refused to try anymore. It was in this instance that I knew it was time to really rethink how I was going about teaching.
I sought assistance from another coach in the gym to take my “still willing to try” students so I could focus on my upset protester. I went and sat beside Maya. It was obvious she had already had enough of my “you can do it” cheer so instead I simply sat next to her for a few moments and let Maya decide whether or not she wanted to communicate with me.
“What’s my punishment?” she asked me after a couple minutes. I half smiled and turned toward her grateful she broke the ice. “You think you should be punished for not being able to do something?” I asked.
“That’s what every other teacher does,” she replied. Hmm. “I was actually hoping that you’d help me, Maya. Would you be willing to do that?”
Shocked by my request, she uncrossed her arms and relaxed her shoulders. “How can I help you?” she asked.
“Maya, tell me something…why is it that not being able to do something frustrates you so much? So many of my students say they can’t and respond very similarly to you.”
Maya’s answer astounded me and helped me consider my approach to teaching in a whole new way.
“Because doing it right is what’s most important. I don’t like to do it wrong. I want the teachers to teach me how to do it right.”
I sat there silent for a few seconds nodding and validating Maya’s feelings while contemplating silently to myself, how can I accommodate this child’s request and teach her to do it right? I think Maya felt a sense of relief that she wasn’t going to be punished and decided to join her classmates after our conversation.
The following week, before we began class, I sat my students down and explained that I’d no longer be encouraging them that they could do it moving forward. Instead, I’d be expecting them to get a different lesson. I explained that they could say, “I can’t” as much as they wanted, but I’d be challenging them right back with, “you can’t or you need more practice?” It was a phrase that took some adjusting to, but after standing by this simple phrase for the last ten years, I’ve found that almost every child that I ask the question, “you can’t or you need more practice” to simply gets the message and continues practicing.
Learning is progressive. We fail forward. And often times, there is no “right way” or “right answer.” It’s from our efforts, commitment, and strong desire to overcome that we find a way. And more often than not, our successes are earned only after considerable failure first. Anything that is simple and can be obtained easily is short-lived in its reward. This was obvious from the empty reassurance I was giving to my students that was clearly ill-received and heightened frustration levels. I’m grateful for Maya’s willingness to express her freedom of speech.
What do you believe you “can’t” do and why?