In the face of constant failure, many of us are tempted to give up—just to save our own sanity. However, we teachers and parents do not have that luxury when it comes to helping a child. We must keep trying—no matter how many times it seems we are not progressing.
Some children who come to us are in a state of learned helplessness—their lives have been so miserable that they have given up trying to succeed. Others are constantly in “fight or flight” mode from years of harassment and abuse.
There is always hope for these kids, but it takes enormous dedication and effort on the part of the caring adult. Eric Jenson tells us that neuroscience demonstrates an individual whose behavior is always in survival mode needs more than just a few opportunities to turn the corner and develop more positive habits. Abused or neglected children need 30 to 50 opportunities to try out more positive ways of interacting with the others in their world.
A friend of mine, G, is an orphan who came from poverty and cruelty and somehow managed to make a good life for himself. The key for him, he says, was a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. S, who would not give up on the class of “worst” kids he had been given to teach. Mr. S. was relentless in pointing out their strengths, demanding high standards and expecting constant improvement. Because of him, G, and many others, were able to break free from a bleak destiny.
I remember one of my ninth-grade students, “Luke,” who had been mainstreamed from special education classes. He acted like the most helpless person I’ve ever known. Luckily, he was in a fairly small class and could not disappear in the back. Even better he was in a very enthusiastic class of kids who helped me encourage and keep him and each other participating and learning every single day. They (and I) would not let Luke quit when he “failed.” We and he would find strategies to get there another way. (Remember failure can be a positive part of creativity and learning!) Luke even managed to earn a “B!”
Even a child who does not come from poverty or abuse/neglect and who has no learning challenges can be difficult for a teacher to motivate. I remember “Mark” as a fifth grader who turned his nose up at every lesson and activity. He called my classes “stupid” and “boring.” Even when we did math and science, where he had real gifts, he seemed distracted and tried to stay on the sidelines. I knew of his gifts, despite his poor performance, because he would occasionally share an insight. For example, after one math class he said that he had noticed that “even plus even is even, odd plus odd is even, but odd plus even is odd.” I kept trying to involve Mark in all the subjects and felt like a failure. Each night I would go to bed thinking, “What can I do about Mark?” Outside of class, I talked to him directly. I told him that I was bringing my “A” game, and that, if he found it boring, it was up to him to come up with ways to make it interesting and useful. I told him that it was his education, not mine and he had to wring every drop of benefit from it that he could. Sadly, I felt my words did not sink in. Years later, when he was a freshman in college, Mark made an appointment to see me. He was happy and enthusiastic. He said that the year he had spent in the Lab School with me had been the best of his life. He was loving all his subjects—not just math and science—but languages and English. He was writing a paper on creativity and wanted to interview me! I was shocked but grateful…
We don’t always have a difficult child come back into our lives, but when it happens, it gives us energy to keep trying with a new batch of “toughies!”
Think about the child you know that is hardest to reach. Think about how to include her interests and strengths. If you aren’t sure what they are, bring in a colleague to help you discover them. Keep trying! Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame the child. Don’t even blame the parents. Just keep trying! It’s worth it, even if you never get to see the seeds you plant blossom.