At one point, after one too many frustrated sighs, I had to call a time out. And we started talking about their frustration. I talked to them about a conference I attended this summer, which was specifically a math conference, where I learned more about the concept of a productive struggle. (I should note at this point that these students barely knew me, so you can imagine the looks I received when I started this.). You ever have it happen where you feel like you have "known" something for a long time but also didn't "know" it? This was me with this productive struggle concept. I can be particularly tenacious about succeeding in some ways, but I can also waver quite a bit in my resolve with others, depending on all kinds of factors. In other words, I approach problems in the way that most people approach them; I try until I either figure it out or am done trying.
Because math has felt easy for me most of the time (except for TRIG... yikes) it has been quite a journey as a teacher over the years. I think it must be human nature that it's really hard to understand why others don't like what you like. It's like you have to struggle with it too at first to really feel the frustration or anxiety or whatever emotion. And honestly it was not as easy for me to work towards empathy rather than sympathy as I would want everyone else to imagine. And it is work--you have to try, repeatedly, to put yourself in the shoes of others on a consistent basis. It takes intent and patience. I had to learn it the hard way for sure.
So I'm talking to these teenage boys about frustrations and why the process of working through something so difficult is still so important. Some look at me with no expression (though I can imagine what some of their thoughts were at the time), while others nod, perhaps in agreement, perhaps to get me to leave them alone so they can just finish copying what I'm doing. We talk and then get back to work. And there's this one student who has scowled quite a bit through this process, and he chose this moment to voice the source of that scowl. "This isn't what Ms. Teacher said to do. I just don't understand this. I don't get it," in a tone that suggested he was at a fairly high level of stress by this point.
Earlier in my career I would have let this be the time where I gave him some space to calm down some, not pushing the angst any higher, and honestly probably giving myself an out in the process. I can see it now, "I mean I don't want to make him feel any worse. We'll just try again another time *maybe*". I would have done exactly what this student, who routinely experiences this emotion, wants me to do.
Or does he? Does he really and truly want me to just ignore his frustration and leave it be? I guess it's possible. But I really doubt it. He doesn't want to feel this way about math. He doesn't want to have a struggle that causes him to lash out instead of feel proud. He probably expected me to ignore it, and wouldn't have been surprised if I did. But I didn't. I said, "okay, let's talk about it. Let's start over and you help me get through this problem." And I asked questions to him, and I made a point to tune out the others who were eager to try and make a guess or interject. I asked him what he thought, what happens next, how do we fix that... and then he answers me, puts his head in his hands, and says "uhhh I'm so dumb!"
Now it seems like he was saying it because he struggled so much, but actually he had just realized that he did know how to do it. He knew how to solve this equation, and he had protested its difficulty so much that he felt silly about it now. And that's what I told him. "You obviously aren't dumb, and you shouldn't feel that way. You let your frustration from before cloud your head. It felt like you couldn't do it, so you shut it out." And he nodded in assent. And then this kid, who sat stone-faced for the first two problems, helped me solve the last two.
I'm not rolling out the teacher of the year carpet here y'all. This isn't one of those movies where I work diligently to get the kids on my side and everything comes up roses. These boys still struggle with math, and they perhaps will continue to for a while. But I was honest with them and tried to help them see the positive of these challenging experiences, and I feel that honesty may help this student not jump to a self-deprecation so quickly next time. I'm also not so naive as to think this one instance has changed his course or made him a believer in his math abilities. He did get two more problems correct though than he would have otherwise, so it didn't hurt either.
I just read this amazing blog post by Josh Parker, an instructional coach and teacher. You can find it here. Part of the awesomeness is that he used quotes from a great book, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but the best thing about this post is that you can feel yourself in the position of this teacher and the interaction with this student. It can be so hard to feel your lesson is sliding off the rails, or you have a student that isn't appreciating your effort, and not trying to either. And the thought of determining the cause of this student's actions runs through your head, but pursuing it seems too difficult to try at this point. We absolutely need to try anyway.