Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Giving Your Students Control Of Their Learning Can Actually Work

I often hesitate to call teaching a "profession," because in actuality it is so much more than that. It is making a difference, it's molding the future. It's not just merely a "profession," but is instead creating all other professions. And that's a lot of responsibility. But we've heard all those clich├ęs before, so we work harder.


The reality of teaching is that we are tired, we are stressed, and we work harder than we ever thought we would. We spend extra hours planning for the next day's lessons off the clock. We put all our energy into class each day and worry about our students all night. We cry for the students we are unable to help outside of school, and praise God that not all of them need the extra protection. We think about them all the time: about what we can do better to get them motivated, focused, and driven to success. Sometimes we have a plan. Sometimes we just don't know what else to do. And those days are the hardest. The days you feel completely defeated, and you genuinely wonder what ever qualified you to be a teacher anyway.

Those days are the hardest because you genuinely feel like giving up, and you are in one of the only professions that would hurt everyone else around you more than yourself if you decided to quit. Because when you're a teacher, your students need you.

I'd reached that point recently coaching a high school color guard. I even blogged about it a few nights ago; about that moment when you've hit your breaking point, when you wonder what more you can even do because you're completely out of ideas. I'd had some girls so unmotivated they hadn't passed memory tests and were unable to perform at competitions. I had some girls who were ineligible due to grades, and bound the law to not perform until their grades had risen above a certain point. I had some girls who refused to practice, who refused to count, who refused to set their bossy attitude and smart-aleck replies aside to take instruction and develop as a performer. And if you know anything about color guard, these things are crucial.

Because it's a team sport.

Every time one person is not practicing and performing to their fullest potential, the team as a whole suffers tremendously. And in addition to these girls who refused to do the required criteria, there were also girls who always did what they were told. They always counted, they always practiced, they always kept their grades and always passed their memory tests. They never mouthed off, they always followed directions, and they were always doing what they were instructed to do. I sympathize for these girls because when I was in guard, I was that girl. I was the one that was always overly-motivated and held back by the unmotivated. I was always screaming counts and taking instruction and practicing when I didn't have something down. And I hated watching videos of our performances knowing that other members were not doing the same.

Now, as an instructor, I didn't know what else to do. We'd done push ups. We'd run laps. I had promised rewards of food in exchange for good performances (I know that always worked for me). We'd had gentle pep talks and frustrating pow-wows. Whether they responded to kind encouragement or harsh instruction, I was determined to get them motivated somehow, but nothing seemed to work.

So today, I took a chance.

I cleared it with the school board and put all my girls in the show for competition day. Everyone who was eligible, ineligible, counting, not counting, sassy, or kind, whether they had been practicing or not, warmed up together today. And don't think this is a miraculous story where they whipped it all together instantly. If I'm being truthful, the beginning of warm up was awful. I legitimately thought I'd lost my mind. To make that decision, I must've totally gone mad! It was as if no one had touched their flag all season! People were seemingly just doing whatever they wanted, not using technique, not counting, and not even remembering what came next.

So I took a breath, said another prayer, and pulled them all together for a pow-wow. Everyone was bright eyed like they'd just won the whole competition. Didn't they know how awful it was when they didn't focus or pay attention to one another? Apparently not. So I asked, "Alright girls, what do you need?"

I don't think they thought I was serious. They all just stared at me. So I continued: "Do you need more information? Do you need me to clarify some counts? Do you need me to change a part of the work you are unable to do? What do you need?" They still didn't answer, so I said, "Don't you want to be good?"

That question got a resounding "YES!"

And when I asked again, "Okay. Well there's only so much I can do. I can give counts and run rehearsals, but the moment you step onto the field, it's out of my control. It's up to you. So before we go out there, what do you need from me?"

They erupted into questions. We clarified counts, adjusted work, ran segments till their arms were sore, and suddenly, it began coming together. And that's when it hit me: they always wanted to be good. Like every other kid learning their ABC's or Calculus II, they wanted to impress. They'd invested too much time to give up, and they weren't ready to. But they had reached their breaking point, too. My frustration had made them feel so defeated, they had given up on themselves.

Just to clarify, I had never once verbally expressed my frustration with them, and if I do say so myself, I'm a fairly decent actress. It was not obvious at rehearsals that I was losing hope, but students are perceptive to these things, just as children are with parents. They don't realize they're feeding off your emotions, but they are.

This warm-up was different, and not just because I had all my girls together, ready to perform, and motivated to do well. It was different because I had given them a chance they deserved, a chance that I had denied them of previously, to prove themselves to me and to themselves. Not only were they showing me they were capable of fulfilling the potential I saw at summer camp, they were showing themselves that they could, in fact, do everything they told themselves they couldn't.

We didn't win the competition. We didn't win best color guard. But that's okay, because in 20 years, those girls won't remember what place they scored at their competitions. But I can guarantee they'll remember the day they took the field in competition and had their best run of the season as a full color guard. There were girls who hadn't marched all season because they didn't have any idea what was going on. There were girls who had missed every sectional and rehearsal and couldn't figure out why they were failing band. There were girls who had been denied performing due to grades and attendance in other classes. There were a lot of outside factors that had contributed to the frustration I'd had with the season so far, as there always are for teachers every year: a season of mountain peaks and a season of the deepest valleys.

We were in a pretty deep valley. But today, I prayed a little harder, and gave my girls a chance. A chance they had deserved all along. Because they'd given up on themselves before we'd really even started, and needed to know that I believed in them enough to keep trying anyway. Once they proved themselves out there today, I realized it wasn't that they didn't care. It wasn't that they were lazy. It wasn't even that they didn't have the information they needed to take the field.

They didn't have the confidence.

Teachers are paid to teach students. That's our "profession." But we all know we're here for the outcome rather than the income. We want to see our students excel. We don't sleep at night knowing our students have so much potential and we aren't helping them reach it, but we can't help them reach it if we don't give them a chance. Sometimes it takes quiet encouragement. Sometimes it takes extreme discipline. But when you've tried all you know to try, try giving them a chance. Put the reins in their hands, because there's only so much you can do. Sometimes you have to take a step back and let them prove to themselves that they are smart enough, and talented enough, and strong enough to accomplish what they thought they never could. Because once they prove it to themselves, they don't want to stop working.

My girls are more motivated now than they ever have been before. I can't wait to see what the rest of the season has in store for us. I was really starting to think we had peaked, because as far as what I was in control of, we had peaked. But as far as what they were in control of? We are far from peaking. My girls have so much hidden potential that was unlocked tonight. And whether you believe it or not (because for a good while, I know I sure didn't), your students have that potential, too.

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