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I had the opportunity to work with a student one on one today. This is a student who impresses me as very smart, yet he fails his courses repeatedly. Why? It is simple, or so I thought. He is just not driven to achieve in school.
We sat down to look at his assignments, both past and current, both due and past due. I try to help students to make lists and prioritize what needs to be done so that they can gain the motivation to make progress without getting overwhelmed and just give up. Once we got past the assignments he didn't have all the materials to complete, we actually got started on an assignment, and about ten minutes in, I start hearing whining. I don't remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was"
"Man. This is work!" with the implication that this was too much work, and that he was wearing out on me. Mind you, this was ten minutes into an assignment where I was sharing the reading with him, so he was really only doing half the work, he was getting one on one support, and still he was complaining. "Man. This is work!"
I realized that this kid had the brains. He simply had no endurance. He was so used to doing nothing that his mental muscles had metaphorically atrophied, and he couldn't take it. It made me think of my running and how hard I was having to work to get back in shape. I shared with the student:
"You know. Back in 2008 I ran three half- marathons."
His eyes lit up in fascination.
"I got myself out of shape and right now I am only running about two miles at a clip, and that is a lot of work."
He seemed interested, so I continued.
"Every day when I go out running, it is hard, really hard. And I could very easily say screw it, hit the couch, turn on the TV and grab myself a snack instead, not necessarily in that order."
"But I don't. Each day that I go out for a run, I have to force myself to get out there, and gradually, I am finding that I am able to run farther and faster. But it takes doing it daily and regularly to build up my muscles and my stamina. Eventually, I know, I will get to the point where I can do 3 miles, then 5 miles, and maybe even 10 miles and 13.1 miles again. I remember that there was a point that I had what runners refer to as " runner's high" where it actually goes from feeling bad to feeling good, and you just want more of it."
It occurred to me that this student had probably never truly experienced the "high" of doing well in school, having people proud of him for his hard work in school. He had probably never worked hard enough in school for it actually to pay off. I figured if he could do it long enough get in shape, it would become easier. I told him that.
That’s why I believe school has to be about more than just academics and testing. This kid is going to take end of grade tests in another few weeks, and irregardless of how much we prepare and pump him up for these tests, I wouldn't expect his performance to be anything more than mediocre. I don't believe it will be mediocre because he is mediocre in any way. He simply has not developed the mental might to complete the race without becoming winded and worn out ten minutes in. These are the kids that simply fill in the bubbles on the bubble sheet and put their heads down. All the test prep in the world isn't going to change that.
What will change that is teaching this kid to stretch his mental muscles. It will take training with this student to be organized before all else so he can map out his daily route. It will involve helping this student learn to prioritize what is important so that he doesn't look at the race course and say, " There ain't no way I'm going to be able to do that." It will encompass helping this student develop the essential skills necessary to be successful in this journey called education. But more than that, it will require us changing the way we do business to create an environment where this student not only wants to achieve in school, but has the motivation and the drive to do so.
How do we do that?
We've got to take more time in schools to build this kid up and show him what he is capable of, so he begins to see doors opening for him that he didn't know existed previously.
We've got to truly create a microcosm of society within the four walls of the school building that both rewards students for achievements but also has measures of accountability. Being a student is his job, just like being an educator is my job. There is no reason why he shouldn't be taught how to love his job.
Finally, but not exclusively, we need to teach him how to individually define what success means for him in school, and then help him achieve success as he defines it for himself.
This is no easy task. It may mean making some fundamental changes to how schools do business. But if we actually did this, imagine what he could accomplish.