A few years ago, I wrote a short book on Success, a topic that has always fascinated me. In Chapter Five of that book, I relay the following story. I tend to read a lot of books but no single quote has meant more to me over the last few years than the one I discuss in this little section of that book (slightly edited):
“This past summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook in my car: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It was long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here. However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control over her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother). She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance. In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery. With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd, beyond belief. Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded. She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it. Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them all.
“One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus. The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey. Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point. In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.
“’Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.’
“Shakespeare could not have said it better. ‘Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.’ For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I read this past year. The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months. And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word ‘Fear’ for other words such as ‘Joy,’ ‘Excitement,’ ‘Hate,’ ‘Love,’ and, of course, ‘Success.’
“We all tell ourselves stories each day that hold us back. Look around and you will find dozens.”
I work with 50-100 students every semester and have done so now for over 45 years. I am always amazed by how many tell me negative stories about themselves—stories that serve no possible benefit except to hold them back from reaching their potential. Students often seem to be searching for an excuse to fail. If you have taught for long, I’ll bet you have heard many of these same student stories. They sound like confessions of dark sins rather than self-doubts.
--I am not good with numbers.
--I do not take tests well.
--I am not as smart as the other students.
--I tend to over-analyze things.
--I work slower than most students.
--I get so nervous during tests that I never do well.
--Everyone else in class seems to understand the material better than I do.
--I work all the time but I never seem to do well.
These stories hang like chains around those students—dragging them down. They are doing it to themselves—creating barriers that make success so much harder (if not impossible). They are building a wall between themselves and success. And, because they have come to believe these negative stories, they often won’t even put up a fight. That’s the part that bothers me. They accept poor performance as inevitable. Yesterday was bad so tomorrow is bound to be worse.
When I hear such stories from my students, I always have the same response: “Don’t tell me negative things about yourself. I can find out the negative things by myself. I want to hear the positive things that I might otherwise miss.” Student often fall into complete silence as if positive self-assessment was simply beyond them. Maybe tearing yourself down is more socially accepted than building yourself up.
I am convinced that most students (not all but most) make the grade they expect to make when they walk into class on the first day. “I’m going to do the work necessary in this class to make a good grade” usually leads to an A or B. “I’m going to do enough work to get by” usually winds up with a C or D.
Students should tell themselves the right stories. As a teacher, I need to encourage them to have the right stories.
I work to figure out how I can get my students to choose to tell themselves better stories about their connection to school and especially to my class. Like Cheryl Strayed, students have a choice in the stories they tell themselves. I like these:
--I will simply work harder than other students.
--I will schedule out each day so I can make efficient use of my time.
--I will find another student and we will work together and help each other.
--I will do my school work first and go to the party second.
--I will not procrastinate. I will not wait till the night before the test to try to learn all the material.
--I will not get involved in so many extracurricular activities that I have no time left for education.
--I will write down questions and concepts I don’t understand so the teacher can give me some specific guidance.
--I will sit up front and away from my friends so I am not distracted and don’t miss anything.
--I will organize my notes right after class before I have time to forget anything.
--I will set aside some extra time so I can do additional practice.
--I will walk into class each day as the best prepared student.
--I will learn to anticipate what the teacher wants from me.
If you can get students to change the stories they tell themselves, you will have made a wonderful stride toward having a great class. If students constantly doubt themselves, every teacher is going to have a real challenge. Push your students to come up with better stories and, thus, a better self-image.
Okay, I could stop this blog posting right there. But, let’s take this idea one step further. What stories are YOU telling yourself that are holding YOU back? This is not just a habit that students have. This is a human being problem. I talk with teachers from across the country and many open up with their own self-doubts. Negative stories just abound when you talk with teachers.
--I cannot get the students excited.
--I cannot write good test questions.
--I cannot explain the material very well.
--I am not as interesting as some of the other teachers.
--I am stuck trying to teach boring material.
--My boss will not support me if I give any bad grades.
--I will get bad student evaluations if I push the students to work hard.
--I cannot get the students to do what I want.
--I always seem so unorganized.
--I do not have much experience so the students don’t respect me.
Gosh, that is depressing. I am sure that some element of each story is true but that does not mean that we cannot make improvements. Don’t let such negative stories hold you back. There’s a famous Michael Jordan quote:
“Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Okay, that is a better story.
Unfortunately, I hear as many negative stories from teachers as I do from students. If you have negative stories in your head, you are never going to be a great teacher. So Begin to Change Your Story!!! As with your students, those negative stories are not doing you any good. There are better stories that every teacher can tell themselves.
--I am going to teach better tomorrow than I did yesterday.
--I am going to do a better job of writing out my teaching notes so the class time is better used.
--I am going to read a good book (such as What the Best College Teachers Do or Make It Stick) so I can come up with some fresh ideas.
--I am going to try something new each week and see what the impact is.
--I am going to think about my own student days and what I wanted to see in my teachers and think about how I might apply some of that to my own teaching.
--I am going to identify great teachers at my school and observe their classes or just buy them coffee and pick their brains.
--I am going to more actively engage my students in class conversation.
--I am going to spend more time in preparation so my class coverage is more efficient.
--I will provide my students with extra materials to help them organize and review important concepts.
--I am going to read all 200+ essays in Joe Hoyle’s teaching blog and see what ideas I can discover. :)
We all tell ourselves stories that do us harm. If yesterday was bad, tomorrow can be better. Trust me on that. If you have been a good teacher in the past, you can become a great teacher in the future. There is absolutely no reason why your best days as a teacher are not right out in front of you.
We can change our future but first we have to change our stories.
Whether you are a student or a teacher, pay attention to your stories. Are there negative stories that you repeat over and over like a mantra that are holding you back from reaching your potential? As you get started in this new semester, if you don’t like the stories you are telling yourself, then make a concerted effort to change them. That is often the first step to success in teaching (and in life).