Some students are against a wall; so close to it they can’t see above it, can’t see around it, and are at a “Why even try?” point in life. These students remind me of myself. I had a severely dysfunctional mother who was a schizophrenic and an alcoholic; who served me moldy food and told me every day that she was going to kill herself. To say the least, I didn’t have my “stuff” at school, and it was a big “why try?” for me. So how does a person go from that point of feeling like the whole world is against them to seeing that they can become something? These are the strategies I used, and if teachers can guide their unmotivated students through these, they’ll be helping students step away from their “wall” and realize, “I can do this.”
1. Find a passion
Finding a passion is one of the biggest things for me. In the midst of being involved with drugs in the 8th grade and acting out in destructive ways, I believe my passion helped me climb out. My passion, I discovered, was wrestling. And somewhere along the way I learned, as with any passion, that it’s always good to have a big goal, but that the key is the daily goal.
Many kids wake up in the morning and don’t feel like doing whatever it is they have to do to meet their big goal. They say to themselves, “I don’t think I can make that team. I don’t think I can reach my goal,” and with that in the forefront of their mind, they stay in bed.
I don’t think people win Olympic medals, that teams win championships, that individuals get scholarships or become doctors or attorneys the day their receive their diploma, their medal, or their trophy. It all happens years before, when they wake up every morning with a broken-down version of their big goal in mind and say, “What am I specifically going to do today?”
We need to help our students cut their giant dreams in half, then in half again. They need to take their four-year or three-year or two-year goal and break it into an annual goal, a semi-annual goal, a quarterly goal, and on down into a monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly goal. Go even further and break the hours into minutes. It’s the next few minutes that lead to graduation; to making a team; to winning a medal.
2. Change behavior NOW
So many people talk about hard work, toughness, and courage, and that’s all good stuff. But what does hard work look like? What does courage look like? What does determination look like? My argument is that it looks like specific behaviors we’re going to start, and specific behaviors we’re going to stop on a daily basis. Help students determine what it is that they’re willing to stop doing and what they’re willing to start doing in order to get a good grade in a class, make a team, graduate from high school, or make it to the 4th grade. This leads an individual to setting small goals that they can achieve, and success breeds success.
So when we look at students who are struggling, my question to them is, “What are you willing to stop? What are you willing to start doing in the next 15 minutes? We’re not focusing on next week just yet. Let’s just talk about the next 15 minutes.” This approach allows the human brain to say, “I can do that.” It breaks a giant, unachievable hurdle into a small “I can do this” task. And that kind of self-talk is critical for struggling students.
3. Never give up!
I love the quote from Winston Churchill: “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up!”
So many times youth feel like the world is against them. Their grades are failing, they’re behind in their classes, but once again, if they can break things down into small steps, they can climb their way out.
I learned this principle firsthand when I was competing for my 7th national title. I was scored on in the last four seconds, and I could have easily said, “This is for the national title, and there’s no way I can score on this guy. He’s just going to run from me.” At that point it was a big elephant. I reminded myself to make a plan and break it down into something small that I could do. During a break, my opponent raised his hands in victory, but I had a plan. I executed my plan, scored a point, and 15 seconds into “sudden death” overtime, I scored a five-point throw and won the match.
As teachers, we only have so much time with each youth. But if you teach students these strategies and show them the steps in WhyTry’s “Jumping Hurdles” analogy, you can help a student discover options.
We only lose if we give up. And a simple statement can keep us going: “I can do this.”