An Open Letter to All Educators: I don't understand

There’s something I don’t understand and I need help figuring it out.
Will you help?

DropoutsWe, as teachers, want to help our kids be better people in the world, right? That’s our purpose? To help kids to be smarter? To be able to have an education that allows them to be whomever they choose to be in the world, right? To keep the doors of opportunity open?

To get there, we want them to be able to read. To think. To do math. To ask questions and find answers.

We want them to understand the basic workings of the natural world. We want them to understand democracy and our place as American citizens in history and in the world. We want them to be well-rounded, understanding the beauty of art and the usefulness of technical skills.

And we, as teachers, work — and we do work hard — every single day at helping kids to be better. To be smarter. To grow. To practice on their weaknesses until they overcome whatever weaknesses they have.

But we struggle with why it is they fight us so hard. And believe me. They do fight us, don’t they? Why do they try to skip class? Why do they work so hard to find the shortcuts around assignments? To ignore our after-school tutoring supports? To quit school intellectually as early as 5th grade and to quit physically the moment they turn 18. Or 16. Or whenever our states allow them to.

Learning by DoingI mean, after all, we’re doing all we can to identify their weaknesses. To point out where they are slow so they can work to get faster. To show them what they don’t know, so they can work to know. To highlight where their misunderstandings lie so they can be illuminated with understanding and rise from the depths of ignorance. To see how, where and why they’re weak, dumb, slow and wrong.

How in the world would they not appreciate all we’re doing for them?

Or wait. Maybe…and this is against all I was taught in my Teacher’s College and in my inservices since then…maybe we’re turning kids away from learning, away from school, with all our helpful suggestions, by pointing out their weaknesses, their struggles.

What if…and this is perhaps crazy talk…what if we instead began every single lesson and every single interaction, heck, every single moment just concentrating on finding their strengths? Finding out who they ARE, not who they AREN’T.

You know, paraphrasing Ken Robinson, not to find out how smart they are, but to find out how they are smart.

I know that every single child has strengths. What if we were to highlight those? Point out where they’re good? Where they’re strong? Where they can do things well? And we’d work hard on building up their strengths even more.

I wonder if our students would begin to listen to us more. And I wonder if, with that listening, they’d begin to trust us. To believe in us. And maybe, just maybe, we could then help them use their strengths to get better. To get smarter. To use those strengths to overcome the obstacles (aka weaknesses) of their lives.

But that’s crazy talk. We don’t have time to make kids feel good. We’re busy helping kids learn by pointing out their weaknesses.

Where they’re wrong. Where they’re slow. Where they’re weak. Wherestudent engagement they’re dumb.

Every. single. moment.

Every. single. day.

It’s no wonder that kids check out early. If my boss treated me that way in order to “help” me be better, I’d quit too.

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Written by GingerLewman

  1. I always tell my kids that I don’t have dumb kids in this room, so they need to stop saying and thinking that they are. It adds a whole new dimension to it all.

    • Good for you! I’m so glad.
      Kids already feel that we’re pointing out all their weaknesses and I’m always surprised how surprised they are when we consistently talk about their strengths.

      Then, too, we wonder why they develop bullying habits, picking on each others’ weaknesses. Such a shame.

      Do you see bullying instances go down when you build your entire class up?

  2. I love this post. Imagine a world where everyone, of every age, was seen and valued for their strengths. Starting in school is the best place for it!

    • Absolutely, Rachel! “If not here, then where? If not now, then when?”

  3. How do we do this, though, in a system that demands we put grades on their work? I tell my students about their strengths all the time…but then I have to put a grade on their papers, and that grade is frequently measuring them against a standard or a yard-stick to which they don’t measure up as successfully as they could/should/need to to get a good grade.

  4. I wonder if a “percent correct” grade gives us a full picture of who a kid truly is. I think it’s one piece. One that’s needed. But there’s so much more. By focusing on strengths in our classes, we could more honestly assess what each kid is ready for. And give them more complete feedback. For instance…

    What would it be like if we assessed on other pieces as well? Maybe if we started by marking if they’re working at, above, or below grade level, based on what they’re ready for. It’s ok to start at “below grade level” if that’s what your ready for. I mean, what? Are we supposed to just ignore they’re behind? Likewise, some kids are ready for more than the minimum. So let’s start them there, with honest and respectful work.

    Then we mark whether they’re growing at, above, or below expected pacing. If they’re working below grade level, but working at above expected pacing, YIPPEE! But if they’re working at above grade level, below expected pacing, I’d expect they’d need a kick in the pants at home. But this kid, in reality, right now is probably idling and getting an A.

    Then maybe we could consider their group work and individual work skills. How are they doing in that arena?

    I know this sounds like I’m talking deficit model again, but it’s not if the work and interactions are always focused on strengths. Then we’re actually working from a growth model. Where are you growing? How do we get your strengths leveraged to either overcome weaknesses, or how do we tolerate the build up of unavoidable weakness areas?

    I’m quite certain that once we begin focusing on strengths in earnest, kids are be much more willing to work on areas of weakness.

    I’m not saying it’s easy to change a 200 year old model. It’s not. I’m well aware. But it is possible to begin small and take it one step at a time.

  5. The only way any of this will truly happen systemically, across the entire nation will be a takeover by another country. Don’t worry, though, in less than another 200 years, it’ll happen and our children will be free to learn again instead of being pushed and molded into test-taking machines.

    • Maybe that’s true.
      But again, maybe it can happen. Maybe it has happened. Maybe it is happening in classrooms here and there. I know it is because I did it with kids. I’ve been in other classrooms where it’s happening.

      But if we think we will all be transformed with a snap of our fingers? No, it’ll never happen. But I believe that we can start.

      Maybe it takes one teacher changing one interaction with one kid, day by day. One step, then another. And I believe that we can change lives forever. Call me PollyAnna. Ok. But if we don’t believe…and if we don’t make that first step, it’ll never happen.

  6. You should check out this blog entry by a guidance counsellor

    • Thank you Susan. I love this and I appreciate the chart, comparing a strength-based approach with a deficit-based approach. SUCH a difference in thinking about kids and their capabilities. I know which one I’d rather have as a personal learning environment!

      I appreciate the share!

  7. […] There's something I don't understand and I need help figuring it out. Will you help? We, as teachers, want to help our kids be better people in the world, right? That's our purpose? To help kids to…  […]

  8. I like this way of thinking about learning and assessment, starting not with what kids don’t know, but what our plans are for them to know and be able to do by the time they leave “the system”. Unfortunately, that system is like a tractor driving on the highway (pardon me for the analogy, non-Kansas friends, but if you’ve ever been stuck behind a tractor on a 2-lane highway, it feels a lot like teaching in today’s “system”). It’s agonizingly slow, and it’s…out of place.

    I believe that if enough educators take back their profession, start a learning revolution, we can get things going in the right direction again and reclaim schools as places of real learning. Learning where kids are kids, not numbers. Where what you learn is more important than the school’s arbitrary rating on some stupid test. Where every student learns and makes progress, not classrooms seen as a single unit making the grade or not.

    Maybe the first step is getting rid of the traditional A-F grading system. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe we need an IEP for every student. I don’t know how we’d manage to do that, but I’m sure schools could figure it out. We’ve done the impossible time and time again, with budget cuts and an all-out assault on our profession in the last 10-15 years. Maybe we do it by thinking about school as preparation for life (I think I know someone who calls that “Life Practice”) 😉

    In life, as Ginger said, we’d all quit if we were treated the way were were treated in school.

  9. I just posted this on LinkedIn and Facebook. I am now getting ready to print it twice… once for me and once for the teachers’ lunch room. Your positive approach to teaching is refreshing 🙂

  10. I hear often from teachers “I don’t have time to do that project or activity because I have too much stuff to cover!” I follow that comment with “When you are getting ready to apply this knowledge, do the kids know it or do you have to reteach?” Most often the response is that they need to reteach before they can move on to use that particular skill in the next thing they are learning. I truly believe, and there is a ton of research to support this, that if you teach students the material in a way that is engaging and interactive, the information is input into the brain in a way that can be retrieved when needed again. If it’s just “look at chapter 3 and answer the questions at the back of the book”, then there is nothing to connect to.

    I have been a firm believer in differentiating by strengths and interests for a long time and have tried to find ways to get classrooms to change in this manner. Time and testing seems to be the road-block. Yet I don’t feel that this needs to be the case. If you teach the content at a deeper level and in a way that the students can retrieve the information, the testing will take care of itself.

    I love this blog, Ginger. It really made me think about what we do with kids in regards to intervention groups and our current assessment system. And I agree that we need to change the focus from their weaknesses to their strengths. We HAVE to give kids something to grab on to, some hope that they can do the work that we want them to do. The hope that they can succeed with hard work. And that focusing on their failures and short-comings isn’t, and shouldn’t be, all that we do. If that’s how we continue with our struggling learners, as well as our gifted kids who will learn the information anyway but never go beyond the low-level expectation, it truly is educational malpractice.

  11. As a school, we have “toxic” words that we as a community aren’t going to say in order to foster positiveness. Addiitonally, in our rooms we want the kids to see themselves positively not only from their perspective, but from others as well. While we foster positiveness throughout the year, If a student speaks or acts negatively about him or herself, we ask they then find good things about themselves they will share with others in some way (this gets easier as the year goes on because they get comfortable identifying these traits and sharing them with others). They can do this through picture, sentences, listing traits, song etc) where they can express who they are in their own way. Kids need constant reminders that they are unique and are valued Studies show that for every negative, it takes many more positives to help overcome the negative to keep it from “sticking”

  12. Focusing on each child’s strengths would be time much better spent than all the time schools spend on self-esteem. Or worrying about what to eliminate for fear of offending someONE rather than teaching that we ALL are different and that is a good thing.

    With regard to making sure that each child knows they are unique – how can that even happen in today’s school with SO MANY standardized tests and “common assessments?” A school situation that was able to truly focus on each child’s strengths would have to ditch all the standardization.

    Life is full of negatives. To pretend to children that they can be eliminated is to set them up for greater disappointment later. Better to build confidence by encouraging growth in areas of strength so that when disappointment happens – and it will – each child has the strength and character to handle it.

    I’d love to see a school that focuses on strengths!

  13. […] There's something I don't understand and I need help figuring it out. Will you help? We, as teachers, want to help our kids be better people in the world, right? That's our purpose? To help kids to…  […]

  14. […] open letter from Ginger Lewman at LifePractice Learning titled I Don’t Understand about focusing on students’ strengths instead of their […]

  15. […] “ There's something I don't understand and I need help figuring it out. Will you help? We, as teachers, want to help our kids be better people in the world, right? That's our purpose? To help kids to…”  […]

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