The Struggle is Real: Facing Setbacks, Moving Forward

I don’t deal with setbacks well, which is why a back spasm that left me bed-bound for two days had me in a whirlwind of panic and self-doubt. When I described my day of playing Hungry Shark Evolution, dozing, and getting sucked into “Doctor Who,” my friends told me I was enjoying what sounded like a perfect end-of-summer day. Why then was I so miserable? Not only because I was in great pain, though there was that. It was more the shame.

In my family, getting hurt was a punishable offense. At best, I would get yelled at, which didn’t feel great what with already being hurt. As I got older, it was more likely that I would be chided for my carelessness, or just my me-ness. The message was always clear: if I got hurt, it was my fault and I should have been better. That has stayed with me. When I get hurt now, I get frustrated with myself. I tell myself this happened because I did something wrong or stupid, and I take my injury or pain as a sign that I am not strong or graceful or disciplined or just plain thin enough to do what I’m trying to do.

Between Boyfriend and the fitness enthusiasts I follow on social media, I’ve become more acquainted with the experiences of people who get hurt. These are strong, athletic, disciplined people, and they get hurt sometimes. And they don’t berate themselves for getting hurt. They don’t abandon their goals, or give up on the things they were trying. They take some days off to recover and, when they’re ready, they start working again. Maybe they’ve decided to start from a different entry point – reinforcing some basics or building from a different strength – but they don’t just throw up their hands, declare themselves unfit, and sulk in the corner.

These are revelations to me, every time: people get hurt, people struggle. Most importantly: I can, too.

I’m reminded of so many students right now, past me included, and how setbacks affect them. Being “behind” the majority of a class has been so demoralizing for many of my students that they’re ready to give up on the whole school thing, rather than trundle along at the back of the class. Reassurances that they’ll get there or are doing great sound like lies designed to make them feel better, especially coming from a teacher, because most teachers don’t show their students what struggles and setbacks look like. We’re not really allowed to, in a system of rubricked evaluations and high-stakes rating. There is a lot of pressure to bring into the classroom only what is proven and guaranteed to work. Sharing one’s struggle as a learner is too great a risk for many teachers, I know. But the implication for struggling students is that only they flounder and face setbacks.

fail-again-fail-better-samuel-beckett

Learning, growing, improving, etc., it all demands trying and failing. It’s the only way we’ll ever get to failing better, doing better. This is well-worn territory, even here, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve only just met my newest group of students, and I want to remember how to make space for them to just straight-up flail toward progress.

Praise the work. It’s not that I don’t want to tell my students how brilliant and creative and wonderful they are. But I need to remember that many students see working hard as a sign of inadequacy. I’ve had many colleagues and adults in general bemoan “this generation’s” lack of work ethic, but it’s not a secret that hard work is hard. Everyone deserves snaps for working hard, especially people who don’t realize how important it is to do so.

– Share the struggle. It’s scary to be vulnerable with students, and overshare is a very real, very inappropriate thing. Some of my colleagues, great teachers, swear by the sharply delineated professional personas they maintain with students. Boundaries are important, but so is being human, and I think modeling the process of learning with examples from a real learner’s life is one of the most valuable things students can get from teachers. I talk about learning new things with my students. I share with them what I struggled with when I was doing what they are doing for this first time, and I make it a point to try new things with them and make sure they know it. Mistakes are shared and discussed in our classroom; we’re works in progress, and we can all help one another.

Reflect often. Time is at a premium in a school year, but checking in with students has to be non-negotiable. They need opportunities to think about and process what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and I need to hear and see their journeys. This is how we all learn from each other, and from our own selves.

Get off the stage. I don’t stay in the front of the room for long, and every year I aim to take myself further from the center. But my favorite time of year is when students step up there. Whether it’s a Ms. Thomas impression or an expert presentation, I love to see students taking center stage and leading us through their learning processes. This coming year, I’m hoping to introduce these opportunities earlier than ever.

How do you deal with setbacks? How do you help your students move past what feels like failure? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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