Everybody loves a good story, but perhaps the story we hold on to most is the one we tell about ourselves. Our story is a bridle controlling a whiplash of decisions, actions, and inactions. It is the voice within that tells us to push forward or simply give up. It is a bank account of worth, which we draw from in difficult times or moments of question. It is the matter we use to define ourselves.
We use our stories to create labels. These labels are both armor and mirror. Whether flattering or disempowering labels stick. We rest on the fact that these traits are just who we are. We give up control so we can release ourselves from the pressure of acting against those traits we wish didn’t exist. If I am stubborn then why would I attempt to compromise? If I am lazy then why would I consider working out?
Students will make their boxes and labels with or without our input. They will hold on to their stories with fists clenched, even if that story has them becoming nothing more than a “nothing”. I have worked with students who cannot emotionally give up the idea that they will become an addict, dropout, or without life at an early age. Even though their future may seem glib, for them it is the one thing that is theirs. It is the one element of their life they can avoid fixing. It will just be and it is not their fault because it is their story.
It is never a certainty, but here are some helpful things we can do to help students recreate their stories of life.
- Be WITH them, not over, above,or behind them: Take a student from where they are not where you think they should be. Do not pretend to understand their experiences or minimize their hurt with your expectations of what can be done if they just get over it. Real empathy requires feeling the emotions another feels without judgment. Thank them for trusting you with their vulnerability, validate the emotions they feel, and help them shift their focus to their strengths.
- Let silence be the bridge to connection: Teachers are natural fixers. We feel responsible for changing lives and saving kids. We go into this profession to teach kids what is best for them. However, when a student is overwhelmed with emotion or insecurities, our words are not always the life raft they are seeking. Sometimes kids just need a safe place to feel. A space where they can speak their truth and not feel judgment or step by step instructions on how to stop feeling this way. Let your silence and open listening be the bridge to building trust. Once a child feels heard they begin to feel understood. Once they feel understood they can then begin to take in your feedback.
- Remind them that love of self is always the goal: Classes and grades are secondary. I know educators sometimes cringe when they hear that, but ultimately until a child feels value they will not feel safe. Until a child feels safe they will not be able to focus on learning. Self punishment or self inflicted pain from risk taking behavior is a coping mechanism that aligns a child’s actions with what they feel their worth is. Look for the small things they do and provide them new self empowering labels so they can see that the perception they have of themselves is not the only perception available to them. Hand out labels like they are free…because they are. Thank you for being helpful and picking that pencil up. I know you did not want to do that assignment, but you finished because you are persistent. You redid the portion of the assignment because you are resilient. You decided to ask a peer for help because you are brave. Take notice and hand your students a different mirror of which they can view themselves.
- Remind them they are not stuck: Kids need to be reminded that they are never a finished product. They are constantly being confronted with choices and opportunities that can lead them to a better version of themselves. We must empower them to trust themselves with choices that are attainable and sustainable. Then give them a judgment free zone to reflect on the outcomes of those choices. They are not the sum of a moment in time and their story is not already told.
Every day our students are in the process of memorializing another page to another chapter of the life they believe they have now and will have in the future. Their view of this distortion is the root of every decision they make moving forward. A proud band geek must get straight A’s and a class clown must get laughs when they get reprimanded in class.
To bring this point home, I would give my middle school students a blank book. The front of the book held a summary of all the wonderful strengths I saw in them and a collection of their accomplishments. I would leave the second half of the book blank with the expectation that they could write out what they wanted to see their next chapters hold.
I knew my place in their life was not at that helm. I was merely a partner in a piece of their emotional journey, but they were always the compass.