I teach in an inner-city urban school. With many of the students I teach, there is a kind of starvation that has nothing to do with food. The children get a nutritious breakfast and lunch at school every day, so their dietary needs are being met. But they are still starved–starved for success. I have come to realize that many times, when a student is not finding success, it isn’t from lack of ability. It is because they have given up trying, and they have given up trying because they just haven’t had enough success when they were trying to make it worth their while. They will protest that the work I give them is too hard, or that they can’t do what I am asking of them. Of course, if I have miscalculated and truly given them work that is too difficult, it is up to me to adjust the level of challenge so that their assignment is realistic, and so that the child sees the task as doable. But more often than not, the child needs enough support to guide them through the task so that they can find their way to a successful conclusion. If left on their own, these children who believe they cannot stay in the game will become chronic behavior problems, and many of them will eventually drop out of school when they are old enough to have the opportunity; so getting it right early on is important. Let me illustrate with am example from this past week.
There is a seventh grade boy I teach, I will call him Frank, though that is not really his name, who has already become a chronic behavior problem in the school. It is difficult for any of his teachers to motivate him to do much in class, and he frequently interacts with students in disruptive ways, or just sits in class and avoids getting involved in anything. Every once in a while, a teacher gets an opportunity with a child like this. For whatever reason, he is not his usual self and decides to do what he is told, more because he hasn’t got the inclination or the energy to resist that particular day than that he has decided to turn his school career around. I was presented with such an opportunity this week with Frank. After not putting in much effort to prepare his piano piece on his keyboard app for my assessment, I called his name to come to the piano and play. He responded as expected, that he didn’t know what to do. At other times I might have tried to hold him accountable, reminding him that he was to have used the preceding time to apply what he knew to preparing the song. But today, he came up to the piano, sat down, found middle C with his right hand thumb, and then repeated that he didn’t know what to do.
But he did know where to place his hands on the keyboard. “That’s okay, you’re here to learn. It’s okay if you don’t know how to play all of this song yet, let’s learn how right now.” I then reviewed with him the fingerings in the music, and he began rehearsing the finger numbers with the keys and their letter names. That was a good start for Frank. Next, I said, “okay, good, now what note does the song start on? What finger do you play that note with? What note comes next?…” I went on like that for about five minutes, and he did a great job of staying with me. Gradually, he began putting the song together, and then he played it, from beginning to end. “That was very good; look at what you just accomplished, look at what you were able to do. I can see by the smile on your face that you are proud of what you have accomplished, and you should be. I’m so pleased with what you have done.” Frank now had a big success that made him feel a whole lot better about being musical and learning to play the piano. I’m glad I didn’t just see Frank sitting unproductively in my class that day, and assume that he would once again resist doing anything productive. A window of opportunity was open, and it led us to an important discovery, which Frank would describe this way: “I can do it. I know this because I did it.” Now hopefully he is looking forward to another song and another success. Sometimes learning that you can succeed is as important as the success itself.