In the sometimes cutthroat world in which we live, I wonder how some of my students will survive if they don’t learn to persevere and work under pressure. To solve problems and grow, one needs to be able to think quickly and react to changes in their environment. It’s like evolution but on a much, much faster scale. When I graduated from college, I applied to about 25 different teaching jobs and only had two interviews. From those two, I didn’t get one job offer. I put great effort into my resume, cover letter, and follow-up conversations, to no avail. Nothing I did seemed to matter. This troubled me. I was putting forth much time and energy into this process and saw no benefits. It was a bit depressing. Everything I had worked for seemed to be falling apart despite what I did to try and make it come to fruition. Finally, I did get offered a job late that summer, but it was only because I was employed by the school as part of their summer program. They needed to see me in action to fully appreciate my qualifications. The moral of this story is that perseverance and great effort in the face of adversity and pressure are needed to grow and develop and make one’s dreams become a reality.
The big question for me as an educator is, How do I help my students realize this? How can I best support yet challenge my students to see that no matter what challenges they face in the future, they will need to utilize all of the strategies and tools available to them to overcome this adversity? Sure, I have shared my stories of struggle and hardship with them and my co-teacher and I have provided them with a multitude of strategies to use when faced with academic problems. But is that enough? Is there more that we could be doing to best help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society filled with stress and challenges?
These questions filled my head yesterday following my STEM class. The students had one final class day to finish working on the balsa wood bridges they have been building for two weeks. Tuesday is the big test day and so they needed to utilize today’s double-block period effectively in order to complete the task at hand. While a few of the groups were on target to finish at the start of the class, two groups had barely begun the building process. To inspire the students, I reminded them of the importance of using today’s class time wisely. I also had them reread the reflections they wrote at the end of our last bridge building period so that they could reflect upon the goals they set for themselves and the Habits of Learning they felt they will need to use to be successful today in class. I thought I was setting them up for a successful work period. I projected the time remaining on the board as a timer so that the boys could see how much time they had left to finish their bridge. I thought this might help keep them focused. Throughout the period, several of the partnerships struggled to coexist and communicate effectively. I heard some negative talk while they worked: “Stop it!” “What are you doing?” “That’s stupid.” You’re not doing anything to help me.” When I heard these unkind words, I worked with the students to troubleshoot the problem. What was going on to cause this frustration? In almost every situation, one of the students blamed the other instead of owning their actions and choices. In every case, I reminded the boys that they can’t control the behavior of others, but they can control their own actions. I doubt they fully processed these words as I have said them on several occasions in the past.
While some of the groups came very close to finishing their bridge by the end of class on Saturday and have vowed to use time during Monday’s afternoon study hall to finish working on them, the two groups that had little done at the start, still had very little done by the end of the period. I reminded those two groups of what they could do to solve their problems and hopefully they will take advantage of the afternoon study hall on Monday to come and finish, but I’m not 100% certain that they will. Is there anything else I could have done to better support and help those two struggling groups? Did I apply too much pressure to them? Did they feel overstressed by the task at hand because I had the time remaining projected on the board? Could I have given them any other strategies that might have made them more successful in class on Saturday? I am worried about the four students in those two groups because I have seen this inability to work under pressure or in the face of adversity from them in the past. Two of them generally become defiant or shut down and the other two become silly and seem to not care about their work. Will they eventually outgrow these behaviors? Are there other things I could be doing to help assist them in this process of learning how to overcome challenges? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I would like to dig into this subject a bit more. How do I help difficult or stubborn students learn to cope and overcome adversity?
Perhaps these two groups will completely surprise me and make good use of their time in afternoon study hall on Monday. Maybe both groups will finish their bridge and be able to participate in the testing activity in class on Tuesday. I like to think that anything is possible. I believe in my students and I have seen them do amazing things in the past. Maybe this is just another hurdle they will quickly leap over. Perhaps these struggles are part of the learning process. Maybe they needed to hit this wall yesterday in class in order to be successful tomorrow.