A couple of days ago, I received a voice mail inviting me (personally) to audition for America’s Got Talent. This amused me, and prompted me to post it to Facebook, asking the rhetorical question “I wonder what they think I can do?” (I’m guessing they might have found an old video of me performing the Bampton Fiddler’s Jig.) Quite a few friends and former students posted their thoughts, some of which were amusing, and a number of which were quite complimentary. It’s amazing how reading nice things about yourself from your friends can do so much for your self-esteem.
This got me thinking about my students. It’s so easy to label them as having “low self-esteem”, as if all I had to do was point it out and the student would just say, “Oh, thank you. I would never have thought of that.” And then the student would pull his self-esteem up by the bootstraps and the problem would be solved.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Self-esteem is like a plant. If you plant a seed, water it, and place it in a nurturing environment, it can grow, but if you leave it in a hostile environment and never take care of it, it will dry out without ever sprouting. Often, a student will ask me for help and will flinch while asking, as if expecting me to make some hostile or berating comment. Or the student will apologize for asking the question, saying something like “Sorry I’m so stupid.” Other times I’ll be helping a student by Socratic questioning and the student will start throwing out guesses rapidly, fearful of being wrong and trying to get to a correct answer as quickly as possible.
When any of these behaviors occur, I pause and say something like, “You seem a little afraid of being wrong. I’m guessing that at some point in your life, someone made you feel bad for not knowing something. Perhaps a teacher put you on the spot, and you could feel every eye in the classroom staring at you while you floundered, and this torture went on and on until you finally spit out the correct answer and the teacher turned the attention away from you and onto someone else.” Inevitably, the student will say, “Yes! How did you know,” and will describe the specifics with incredible detail.
And so the lesson gets put on hold while I spend a few minutes undoing some of the damage. The conversation usually ends with me telling the student to look me in the eyes and say, “Mr. Bigler, I’m smarter than I give myself credit for.” Most of them make an effort to resist actually saying it out loud, but when they finally do, there is almost always a little smile that they can’t quite succeed in hiding from me. I don’t let on that I notice the smile as I reply, “You’re right! Don’t ever forget it!”
Sometimes, when I’m having one of these conversations after school, the student will be in my room with a friend who just happens to be a student or former student with whom I’ve already had this conversation. The friend will chime in relentlessly. ”You have to say it. Really. Come on. Just say it. He made me say it too. And if I can say it, you can too. You have to!” Of course the student eventually does say it.
The payoff is that once the message that plays over and over in their heads begins to change, it makes them start to believe in their own intelligence. And then they’re willing to risk being wrong, because I’ve made the risk almost insignificant. It’s impossible to risk being right without also risking being wrong, but once they’re willing to take both risks, they’ve opened their own path to success. And once the student is on that path, success brings about self-esteem, which leads to more success.
If you’ve read all the way to here, there are two things you need to do: First, say to yourself, “I’m smarter than I give myself credit for.” Second, believe it!