Neediness can seem amplified the first month of the school year.
Your new class is younger than the group you finished with just weeks before.
And many come to you from teachers who coddled, over-helped, and rewarded them into apathy and dependence.
Even if you begin the year . . .
- teaching highly detailed lessons.
- modeling explicitly.
- having students practice what you expect.
Even if you check thoroughly for understanding, and your new class proves they know what to do when you give your ‘go’ signal, you may still have students frozen slack-jawed in their seats.
You may still have students make pleading eye contact with you while stretching their hand as high as it can go.
Such is the power of learned helplessness.
The problem with simply ignoring it is that many students won’t even try. They’ll sit paralyzed, unable to get started. If you’ve taught the lesson well, however, they don’t need much.
The bullet-pointed strategies above will have brought them right up to the ledge. All they need is a little push.
What follows are five things you can say to them that will do the trick. Just be sure you keep some physical distance between you and them. Do not lean down, kneel next to them, or show any sympathy.
I know this may sound harsh, but it’s the most compassionate thing you can do for these students. Just approach, and while making eye contact, say one or more of the following . . .
1. “You don’t need me.”
2. “You can do this.”
3. “I believe in you.”
Then walk away. If after a few long minutes they’re still struggling, then approach one more time and ask what the trouble is. No matter what they say, respond with one of the following . . .
4. “So what are you going to do about it?”
5. “So what is your plan?”
Hear them out, pause, and then say, “You got this” or “Now, go and do it.” If they still seem at a loss, then follow with one more, “I believe in you,” and perhaps a fist bump. Then be on your way for the rest of the independent work period.
No More Lies
The idea is to wean them off needing you to do or think what they can do and think for themselves.
Therefore, every day, after setting your students up for success with good instruction, be very wary about stepping in and strongly reluctant to help individual students.
Stay back and away, accept no excuses, and allow them the dignity to take responsibility for themselves and their learning. Challenge them through your inaction to make their own choice about their future.
But won’t they just sit there? Won’t they just struggle? Won’t they produce minimal work?
At first, yes. There is a chance they won’t get much done. But this is okay. It’s even good, because it’s really them. It’s who they are at this moment.
Their true abilities are no longer based on fake production or pretend improvement that’s been projected onto them by a teacher desperate to show progress.
The truth is the only way up.
Their base level, both academically and motivationally, provides the footing to start making real and lasting improvement. Reality has a unique and unparalleled way of kicking them into gear.
Being forced, essentially, to either sit and do nothing or succeed, which you’ve prepared them for, is a powerful motivator to pursue the latter.
In just a few days, at most, they’ll get better. They’ll begin their work sooner and work for longer periods of time. They’ll produce more and with higher quality. Through early ups and downs, if you stay the course, they’ll get stronger and more confident.
They’ll stop looking to you.
Which gives you a chance to praise them based not on half-truths, lies, or distortions—which merely send the message that they’re not good enough and they really do need you—but based on real success and what they, too, can see with their own eyes.
Thus, they know it to be true and well-earned.
Which feels unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. It cranks their intrinsic motivational engine on for the first time, turning their world upside down.
And it changes everything.
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