The spring semester is rapidly ending. I have little time left to work with my current group of students. I always want every semester to end on a surge of energy. Especially in the spring, classes can drift into mass lethargy where everyone just begins to go through the motions. Education is too important for that conclusion. Everything goes better when it ends with enthusiasm.
Recently, I emailed all my students in hopes of encouraging them to redouble their efforts even as spring began to warm the earth and flowers began to appear. I am trying to establish a strong mindset here at the end of the semester. They are young and strong. With the right mindset, they still have time to move mountains. I have a motto, "if you are not dead, things can always get better."
Here is the email I sent to my spring students.
We have four weeks left in the semester – roughly 12 hours that we will be together. It’s not much time but it is enough time to push that grade up.
Let me make a suggestion.
I listen to books on CDs as I drive around town. A few years ago, I was listening to an audiobook in my car: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It is 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 of 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. 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 successfully.
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 my car 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.”
Shakespeare could not have said it better. “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.” For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I have read recently. 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 “Success.” We are very much a product of the stories that we tell ourselves. I believe that.
We have four weeks left in this semester. My guess is that all of you would like to finish strong so you can learn the material and make the highest grade possible.
What is holding you back from reaching your potential? I suspect a large barrier to your desired level of success is a list of the stories that you tell yourself about this class. Be honest – what stories linger in the back of your mind about this class? Which of these sound like you?
--I’m not as smart as the other students.
--I’m just not very good with numbers.
--I’m tired of being a student so I’m going to coast out with as little work as possible.
--I prefer to sit and listen and this teacher keeps asking me questions, which is annoying.
--I’m good at memorizing. I am not very good at thinking.
--The class is in the morning and I am not a morning person.
--I’ve got other classes that take up much of my time.
--I am never going to need to know this material so why waste my time.
--I don’t really know what I want to do in life so why spend so much time on this course.
--I want to have fun with my friends and don’t want to waste time on this class. College is for fun.
--I’m really terribly shy and don’t like to speak in class.
--I always seem to know the material until I get to a test and then I panic and make stupid mistakes.
--No one really cares if I make above a C. Mediocre is good enough.
And, all of those are absolute nonsense. They are designed to hold you back. They are designed to give you a dull, mediocre life. They are designed to take you off the hook and have an excuse to be lazy. Those are the wrong stories. They will never lead to success in anything. That mindset makes you an average person. You are smarter than that. Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results. I cannot guarantee that you’ll make 110 on our third test but I honestly believe you will do better.
What stories should you be telling yourself?
--I will be the best prepared person in class next week. I will analyze every question in advance and be ready with an answer. I might not be able to do this for an entire semester but I can do it for the next week.
--I will write down questions in class that I don’t understand and go ask the teacher immediately. He is paid to teach so let him earn his money.
--I will enjoy the energy and excitement of the class discussions. I will look forward to this class.
--I will pray that the teacher calls on me in class because I am ready to be a leader.
--I will work the extra class problems as soon as I get them.
--I will start keeping a diary of the amount of time I spend studying each day just to see if I can slowly raise that average.
--I will not worry about whether the material will ever be important. I will learn it just for the sheer joy of adding knowledge to my head.
--I will be better at time management so that I am ready for every class and can still have time to enjoy life outside of class.
I simply believe you will do better if you have better stories. Positive stories create positive results. You have to have stories that give you the strength to do the work now and do it well. You have to overcome the bad stories.
That is not easy. I fully understand. But better stories really do make for better students.
I have an odd photo here at my house. It is taped to my wall near my computer. It is a photo of the cover of a notebook. It was given to me by a student who did very well in my course about a year ago. After the semester was over, she sent me the photo and explained, “I wrote this on the cover of my course notebook on the first day of the semester and I looked at it long and hard every day for the entire semester.”
On the notebook, she had written just four words:
“I want it more.”
She told herself the right story and she did very well. She truly did succeed.