Four Pieces of Advice for Students and Others

Tomorrow, like many teachers throughout the country, I start a new school year. When I was a student, I used to hate the stock aphorisms intended to inspire me. As a teacher, I’ve tried to develop advice that is worthwhile but is still genuine to student experience. Here’s a selection.

You don’t have to like everyone, but at least be civil.

Loving one another is a worthy goal, but I set the bar lower. There are people on this planet that I simply cannot love, no matter how much I struggle. And perhaps that’s reasonable, because there are seven billion people on this rock. Loving seven billion people is a lot of work.

Here’s the standard I set for my students: Tolerate each other. I’ve said to them, “I don’t expect you to like everyone else in this room. I know you won’t. But if you’re going to be mean, if you’re going to argue, not here. Ignore the ones you can’t be nice to.”

That’s a far more attainable goal: Ignore the ones you can’t at least be nice to.

At the same time, I realize there are some you simply can’t ignore. I’m not asking anyone to be a victim. I also tell my students to come to me if someone just won’t leave them alone, and I’ll take care of it. In the outside world, we don’t have that luxury, especially with people who have good reason not to trust the police.

At the very least, though, don’t initiate. Punch a Nazi if it makes you feel better, but if someone is just being a generic twit, do your best to ignore them.

Everyone makes mistakes. Forgive others theirs, and learn from yours.

The first part is one of those stock inspirational quotes that appear on teacher posters, along with “Excuses stop here!” and “You never fail until you stop trying.” But these are common because they respond to persistent attitudes in students.

I teach mathematics. Students resist doing work in front of the class because they’re afraid of making mistakes: Other students will laugh, and they’ll feel stupid.

Dr. Jo Boaler of Stanford, a mathematics education reformer behind YouCubed, is a champion for the cause of making mistakes. Boaler cites research that claims that mistakes cause neural growth that doesn’t happen when we do things correctly.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that mistakes are desirable, as Boaler may be taken as saying. They are, however, inevitable if we’re reaching outside of our knowledge comfort zone. And even if we’re doing something we’re very comfortable with, we make mistakes from time to time.

Be patient with mistakes, both your own and those of others.

Grit and mindset are important, but they don’t guarantee success.

One of the more hotly discussed issues in education these days involve the related concepts of “grit” and “mindset.” The modern idea of mindset comes from the writing of Carol Dweck, and is a common thread in Boaler’s work. The foundation is that people who believe that they can change are more capable of changing than people who can’t.

The concept of grit, meanwhile, is most associated with Angela Duckworth. Duckworth gave a TED talk where she discusses her research. Her theory is that people who persevere are more likely to succeed than people who don’t.

At their most simplistic, these theories are neither new nor complex: People who think they can, and people who keep trying, are more likely to succeed. Dweck’s contribution is to stress that even “I can’t” is a mutable belief: We can change how we perceive our own ability to succeed. Duckworth’s original contribution is less clear to me.

The problem with these concepts is in their cultural context: We have a myth in our society that we are all responsible for our own destiny. If we fail, says the narrative, it is because we just didn’t try hard enough.

Life isn’t fair. We’re not all born with the same opportunities, and we don’t all have the same chance to succeed. When I returned from summer camp as a child filled with the inspired exuberance of “I can do whatever I want to,” my older brother deadpanned, “You can’t fly. If you jump off a cliff, you’ll die.”

He was right. And, since I’m now 49, it doesn’t matter how hard I want to be a starting pitcher for the major leagues. It’s not happening. No amount of growth mindset or grit is going to change that.

In Duckworth’s video, she compares people in similar situations. As hard as it is to accept, there are some things my students will probably never be able to do.
The poor have grit, arguably more grit than the rich. Their inability to get out of poverty isn’t because of they’re just not trying hard enough.

There are of course exceptions, people like Ralph Lauren, J. K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Ben Carson. It is possible, but the more the cards are stacked against you, the more difficult it is to succeed.

All that said: If you don’t try, you will fail. If you do try, you might still fail and that sucks big time, but at least you gave it a shot.

We all have baggage. I acknowledge yours.

Every single one of us interprets everyone else through a filter of a lifetime of experiences. Some of us have steamer trunks full of crap, some of us just have carry-on luggage, but we all have baggage.

We judge each other on factors like skin color, gender, size, accent, and social role. Without meaning to, I will compartmentalize you based on other people who look like you, or who have your name, or who come from a similar background. You’ll do the same to me.

As much as we want to be seen as individuals, our interactions are always colored by these experiences. On one level, it’s an evolutionary shortcut. But it gets in the way so much of the time.

My point in discussing this with my students is to help them understand that their struggles with their peers might have nothing to do with them. We are never interacting in a vacuum. The more we understand this, the more we are able to show compassion and understanding towards seemingly random behavior from others.

The other side of this coin is to acknowledge not just the baggage and filters of others, but our own. Teaching can be especially draining. As a high school teacher, I will have around a hundred or so students on my roster. I’m at a school right now where there are over a thousand students. That’s a lot of interactions every day, and each of those students has had different experiences with teachers, with white people, with males, with mathematics class, and so on. That’s a lot of emotional juggling to be participating in.

We are all human. Hopefully, we’re all trying to do the best we can do. Simple aphorisms are popular because they fit on posters and are quick to read, but I try to provide my students with more genuine depth.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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