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March 4, 2021

The Importance of “I Can”

The familiar smell of old shoes and fresh popcorn conjured up memories of endless hours with four wheels. The roller skating rink: not much had changed, except this time I was here with my kids who had never experienced the pull of a disco ball and pulsing music. Evan, my oldest, found himself fearlessly tackling the rink. But Lauren, the one who always seems to have the most gritty spirit, found herself scared, overwhelmed, and soon spending more time splattered on the floor than up on her skates. My hunch is that you, too, have had moments where your tenacious teaching spirit has taken a spill. If one of those reasons has something to do with the tough work of implementing Common Core, there is a lesson my daughter has to teach us all.

Her initial collapse while learning to roller skate proved an acute reminder of just how tough it is to learn something new, and how tough it is to teach someone who already thinks she’s defeated. But like any teacher-mom, I was determined to help her develop a sense of confidence and progress.

First, I tried to steady her by holding her hand and then letting her grab onto my arm as she worked to gain her balance. Our success was fleeting and I started to hear the mantra that will stop any learner dead in her tracks: I can’t do this, I can’t do this. It was time to give her a new narrative –- I can do this, I can do this —  with the help of a scaffold. We rented a balance bar for beginning skaters that she could wheel around with her.

I watched her fearful hands clench the bar, white knuckles telling me she needed a distraction from those self-deprecating words I knew were still running through her head. I enticed her off the rink to the snack bar because there was a thin carpeting on the way there. I knew if she could experience a little success somewhere else, she might re-think her approach on the harder surface. So, we practiced balancing. I thought we were getting there, but as we teacher-learners know too well, this tenuous process is often one step forward and two steps back.

Back on the rink, she wanted to try it without me watching. I let her go. And then watched. I watched as she fell and fell and fell. My heart aching for her, I rushed to help her up, limp with defeat and tears: “Mom, I just can’t do it. I’ll never be like those other kids.” All I wanted to do was pick her up and fill that hole of defeat with as much sugar as we could muster. But instead of cotton candy, I knelt down in front of her, looked her straight in the eye and said, “You can do this, but it doesn’t have to be today. Think of everything you can do now that you couldn’t when you walked in the door.” She decided to give it one last try, just to the exit.

And that’s when it happened. When the pressure was gone and the expectations suddenly attainable. She started to skate. It wasn’t far. It wasn’t pretty. But it was enough. Enough to produce a smile of confidence, a willingness to come back, a desire to try again.

Sometimes we’re the ones whose feet feel unsteady. Other times we have a Lauren-learner in our classrooms, full of hope and frustration, expectation and obstacle. Whether it’s us or our learners, there’s no doubt that Common Core implementation has intensified a lot of these feelings. I know you’re feeling this way because you tell me: in your emails, your questions on our website, or when I meet you at conferences.

As we confront this complex work, let’s take with us a few of Lauren’s lessons:

  • Learning something new is just plain tough, and we have to give ourselves time to see growth.
  • There’s no shame in creating scaffolds for ourselves or others as we learn to stand on uncertain footing. Collaborate with a colleague, ask your students for feedback, seek out a professional organization, connect with other teachers in online platforms — do whatever you must do in order to steady any unfamiliar motions.
  • If you repeat a mantra of impossibility enough, you’ll start to believe it. Don’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy; instead, give yourself a new narrative that seeks to meet the standards while maintaining the integrity of your classroom.
  • Give yourself permission to fall. Each time Lauren fell, she was ashamed. Wipe shame from your slate of possible reactions and see it as a moment to catch your breath before carrying on, rather than a moment of judgment.
  • Create attainable expectations. With each new expectation, be willing to stretch a little more, instilling a desire to try again.

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