"Watching my kids struggle is the BEST feeling in the world!" - said nobody ever.
As a parent and a math teacher, I hear the words, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard!” on a daily basis. I try to use every opportunity I can to build their strength and confidence through the struggle by providing just enough information to get them started. Don’t get me wrong - I’d be LYING if I made it seem like I ALWAYS do this. Sometimes, the pressures of time, all the “to-dos”, and too many fires to put out at once causes me to rush the process and go into rescue mode way too soon.
Brene Brown addresses this issue in her book, Daring Greatly. She writes, “Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.” She continues, “Raising children who are HOPEFUL and who have the COURAGE to be vulnerable means STEPPING BACK and letting them experience disappointment, deal with conflict, learn how to assert themselves, and have the opportunity to fail.”
This doesn’t mean we need to be completely hands off and let them tank without ANY support. From the sidelines, offer words of inspiration (“I believe in you. You CAN do this!”) and a nudge in the right direction (“Here’s how I would suggest getting started…”), then back off and let your kids stumble through the struggle. If we are always in the arena fighting their battles for them, we strip them of the opportunity to believe in themselves. I am forever grateful for my parents and mentors because they rarely came to my rescue! Nope. They let me fall, coached me from the sidelines, then gave me space to activate MY BRAVE and go at it again.
Hope is LEARNED, friends! “Children with HIGH LEVELS OF HOPEFULNESS have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that, they learn to BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES.”
What is something your kids (or students) have struggled with recently where you jumped in too soon? Replay that situation and reflect on how you could have backed off...offering just enough to get them started, then allowing them space to walk through the struggle to reach that “I did it” moment. Comment below!
Me: Hi, I’m Sarah.
New Acquaintance: Hi, I’m [insert NA’s name here]. What do you do for a living?
Me: I’m a math teacher! Actually, I have a business where I make math videos and resources to help students, teachers, and even parents understand how to tackle math problems.
NA: Oh my! Thank goodness for you. I’m terrible at math. So are my kids.
Then, cue the "New Acquaintance’s" sideways and slightly downward stare as they travel back in time to their horrific experiences with math in school. I get this ALL. THE. TIME from people, including kids.
When I launched the Math Misconception Mystery series, it was important to me to start each episode with the Mathematical Mindset Creed. (Sidenote: If you’re a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade teacher, and you do not have this series in your life yet, do yourself a favor and click here to preview a free episode!)
The very first line in the creed is “This is a safe place to make mistakes. Mistakes help me learn and grow.” This declaration is a game changer, ya’ll! People tend to hate math because they don’t like to make mistakes and feel embarrassed when they do. We have to be intentional about how we set the stage for learning.
This year, my students busted out the Mathematical Mindset Creed every day before we started a lesson. In the beginning, I made a big fuss over the idea that everyone is going to make mistakes this year. Even me! That’s math. And frankly, that’s life. When I make a mistake, a legit mistake, not one that I’m throwing out there on purpose, it is like a PAR-TAY in my class. Suddenly, we are all super invested in the problem, analyzing every step to figure out where I went wrong. And when we do, I explode with smiles and say, “When I make a mistake, it is like a game for me. I HAVE to figure out where I went wrong.” Of course, I always have a student stand up and shout, “Ms. McCarthy, this is a safe place to make mistakes!” To which we would all chime in, “MISTAKES HELP ME LEARN AND GROW!!!”
How do you create a “safe place” where mistakes are necessary to learn and grow? Comment below!
Everyone has a story. As teachers, we are constantly in pursuit of uncovering the stories of our students. What I love most about teaching is that I get the opportunity to plug into their lives, tap into their potential, and then wonder how my time with them will impact their lives and futures. Here is a story about this 4th grader.
She has thrown around foul language more times than I can count on my fingers. She has been blatantly disobedient and disrespectful to well-respected teachers and admin team members on our campus. She has lied, roamed the halls without permission, and has been removed numerous times from her classroom.
One day, my principal asked if she could join the other 4th graders that I pulled for math lessons. Knowing her reputation, my mind was screaming, “Ab.So.Lute.Ly.NOT.” But my heart quickly took over and I said, “I’ll let her give it a shot. But I refuse to allow her behavior take away learning from my other students.” My principal smiled and said, “Thank you. I’m curious to see if you can breakthrough her walls.”
The next day, this student enters my room. She finds a seat at the verrrrrrry back. Throughout the lesson, she did not participate in any of my math songs and chants. She refused to do any work at all. In fact, she spent the entire lesson messing around with my computer and microphone equipment in the back of the room, screaming into the microphone whenever she saw an opportunity. Not. Okay. When I passed out the exit slip for the math lesson, she just sat there with a smug smile on her face. Then, she looked me straight in the eye, scratched something on her paper, lifted her pencil dramatically and SNAPPED IT in half.
After dismissing the other students, I walked over to her and read what she wrote down before breaking her pencil. “I am stupid.” I looked her in the eye and she’s still smiling, appearing to enjoy the scene she created and how it will make me feel.
(Kneeling down to see her eye-to-eye)
Me: How do you feel about school?
Student: I hate school. It’s stupid. I’m stupid.
M: Well, I noticed you were playing with my computer and microphone equipment back here. You seem to be good at understanding how technology works.
S: (shocked that I wasn’t yelling at her for that, then retreating back to her challenging mode): No. I’m stupid.
M: I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re just afraid to show everyone and yourself how brilliant you are.
M: What do you want to be when you grow up?
S: (sassy tone) Poor.
M: C’mon. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.
S: Nope. I’m going to be poor.
M: Okay, well having that garbage in your head is not going to get you anywhere. I see something special in you. In fact, I see greatness in you. You’re smart. And you have talents that I am excited to discover. And with math, I can help you. My room is a safe place to make mistakes. Mistakes help us learn and grow. But in order for us to continue, you need to say this: “I am ready to give my best effort.”
S: No. I’m want to be poor.
M: Okay...how about, “I am ready to try.”
S: No. I want to be poor.
M: Hmm, you know what. You may re-enter my room when you say, “I am ready to be MORE than poor.”
S: No. I want to be poor.
M: Okay, then I can’t help you just yet. I care about you, and I am here to help you when YOU are ready to be helped. You will stay in your classroom for math until you change your mind. The choice is yours. I’m here when you’re ready. Your ticket back into my math class is to say, “I am ready to be MORE than poor.” That’s it. Let’s get you back to class.
I told my principal how it went and that she is allowed to come back when she says what she needs to say. My principal has good relationship with her, so she talked to her. The next day, the student came to my room while I was prepping for my next group.
S: Ms. McCarthy, I don’t like math. I don’t like school. But I want to come back in.
M: Okay. You remember the deal.
S: (deep breath) I’m ready...to be...more...than...poor.
M: You did it. Now we can move forward. I know you said you don’t like math. My mission is to change that!
S: Not gonna happen.
M: (laughing) Challenge accepted. See you after lunch.
Fast forward to the end of the year…This student became my tech assistant. She’s really good at figuring out how things work and even showed me a thing or two (and I’m fairly techie myself!). Eventually, she decided to start working out problems and randomly participating. However, she still has her stinker moments: refusing to work in groups or sing my songs or chant my chants. She still chooses to be disrespectful. And she likes to pretend that she doesn’t care about math and acts like she is not paying attention, but here’s the thing...she is. And she’s smart.
Yesterday, after a pep talk, she decided to compete in the Class Math Bee. I have to admit, I don’t know how I sold her on this, but she competed. This is a picture of her during the competition. In order to stay calm and respectful during the competition, she was working on an Endangered Animals Project on Google Slides, a topic my techie girl is super passionate about. At one point, I kneeled down and whispered, “Hey. Remember that day you told me you were ready to be more than poor?” She nodded. “You’re so talented with computers. Like for real, check out this project! I’m so impressed. People who are good with computers can earn a lot of money, you know?” She smiled.
And to my surprise, she made it to the school finals! Say what? My techie girl who “hates math” outlasted some of the highest performing students in her class. I’m not even making this up. Watch out world - this girl is FULL of SURPRISES!