Being an educator of elementary and middle school students for seventeen years, I have had a lot of experience with teaching within a school context. However, one of the most game changing experiences I had in my life as a teacher happened outside of the classroom, and the person who I had taken on as a student ended up being one of the best teachers I ever had. In order to protect her privacy, I will refer to her as Stephanie in this piece.
Stephanie and I were enrolled in the same 200-hour yoga teacher training. We got to know each other when we were midway through our yoga training. During a class break, Stephanie was next to me in line for the bathroom. Trying to make small talk as the wait was going to be a long one, I looked her way and asked, “How are you doing?”
Nervously, Stephanie glanced off to the side and confessed, “I have to present today, but I haven’t finished my paper.” The paper about which she spoke was a ten to fifteen page reflection paper. It was a major requirement for the completion of the yoga training and we were to give a talk based on the content of our paper to the rest of the students in the class. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “You must be so mad at me.”
To that, I simply responded, “I’m not mad. I am sure it will be great.” When this response came out of my lips, I was actually quite surprised at myself. If one of my middle school students came into class unprepared like that, I would have been pretty upset. This feeling of discomfort on my part would not have been because my orders weren’t followed. It would be because I want my students to do well, and I work very hard to help them. For me, when a student fails, I have failed them. So when it seems I am getting angry with them, I am mostly getting angry with myself. However, Stephanie wasn’t my student, and so it seemed more natural to be easy going with her.
After our break was over, the presentations began. To Stephanie’s dismay, she was called up first. She started out her presentation by telling everyone that she was the daughter of South American immigrants. To her parents’ pride, she did extremely well academically and earned a full scholarship to a prestigious university. The world was hers for the taking, and she was filled with hope.
Despite this seemingly fairy tale ending to a very successful high school career, Stephanie’s experience in college was rocky, with her senior year being the hardest. Nevertheless, she was getting by and was on her way to finishing up her final papers and projects. However, Stephanie spoke of one particular term paper that seemed to give her a lot of trouble. For some reason that she couldn’t put her finger on, she couldn’t get it done. The due date for her paper went by, and she got an extension. Then the due date for the extension went by, and she dropped it.
After working four years to be the first person in her family to obtain a college degree, Stephanie walked away without her diploma. She was heartbroken. Upon hearing her story, I was heartbroken for her.
Recognizing a similar pattern emerging and knowing that Stephanie’s reflection paper was already written in her mind, I approached her after the presentation was complete. “Stephanie,” I said, “I was really touched by your talk. I don’t know if you remember this, but I am an English teacher. Let me know if you want me to help you get your paper done.”
With that, I gave Stephanie my phone number, and she called me later that week. I reminded her that she had her paper already written since she had presented, so all she had to do was get it down on paper. We worked out a schedule, and I provided some encouraging phone calls to keep her on track, asking her what was getting in the way and helping her find solutions to removing the various barriers she had in life to getting her work done.
Some of the barriers were simply time management or figuring out the right location to sit and write undisturbed. Those were easy to solve with a little creative looking at Stephanie’s schedule and the decision to write at one particular Starbucks versus another. However, there were some that were tougher to navigate, such as feeling like a failure for not having made the original deadline. Those barriers required gentle encouragement and reminders to use the meditation practices we had been learning throughout our program. Within two weeks, the paper was done and handed in, and eight weeks later we both got our yoga teaching certificates.
Once that hurdle was jumped, I asked Stephanie if she wanted to take on another challenge: finishing her degree. Although the prospect of doing that was appealing, Stephanie was nervous. Nevertheless, she decided that getting her degree was a goal she wanted to take on, and we immediately got working to make it happen.
Since finishing Stephanie’s degree was going to be a more academically challenging task and one that she would be doing without the support of a cohort of fellow students, I had Stephanie imagine what having that much desired degree would look like and feel like to her. She imagined the happiness of seeing the diploma hanging on the wall of her parents’ living room. She imagined the pride after accomplishing a task she wasn’t sure she could do. She imagined the lightness she would feel after the burden of not finishing her college degree had been lifted after eight years.
The next few months were demanding Stephanie had to now retake two classes to earn her diploma. During this time period, she faced similar obstacles as she did while completing her yoga paper. I called her frequently, and we talked through how she could overcome those obstacles by creatively looking at her time, finding a quiet place where she could do her work in peace, and meditating when the negative voices in her head were drowning out the information from her classes. All of these strategies allowed her to stay on the path that she imagined for herself and unlock her untapped potential.
And within eight months of her presenting her story on how she didn’t get her college degree, Stephanie felt the joy of seeing her diploma on her parents’ living room wall, she felt the pride for accomplishing a task she thought she couldn’t do, and her burden was lifted. I will never forget the night she brought her diploma to my home. I remember how she told me that she couldn’t have gotten through this without me. Although I was extremely flattered to hear her say that, it was Stephanie who was doing all of her readings and writing all of her papers for class. I didn’t provide any academic support, only psychological.
The reason why this experience was a game changer for me was that it made me realize how many barriers to learning might be caused by other factors than academic difficulties, learning disabilities, or lack of resources. Sometimes, internal barriers need to be mindfully removed in order to unlock untapped potential. What I did with Stephanie wasn’t magic. It was a personalized approach to her learning that addressed her psychological needs. In order to do this, in each interaction with her, I followed this line of questioning:
- What are you doing right now? Is this action working?
- What is your next step?
- What is keeping you from accomplishing your next step?
- How can you reinterpret your situation so that, while remaining realistic, you can see opportunities rather than obstacles?
- What is your next step now? Is it the same or did it change?
Helping her answer these questions allowed her to create stepping-stones so that she could get from her starting point to her end goal. Because various psychological factors like regret, shame, doubt, and fear were clouding her decision making process, she was stuck. However, our conversations and this line of questioning helped her see her situation more clearly and move forward.
Teachers are the first responders to our students’ mental health issues, and psychological factors can create barriers to learning. Education can be transformational when students, like Stephanie, are taught how to identify, understand, and think of solutions to overcome their own barriers. In my own experience, schools are adept at addressing issues on the surface level, including time management. Many schools are also very responsive in giving kids additional academic support. Additionally, social emotional programs have become increasingly important components of a school wide guidance program.
However, I see a need for teachers to be trained in how students’ minds work and develop. Doing so will provide teachers with the necessary background to support student personal as well as academic growth. By learning specific practices and language that teachers can use in their everyday discussions with students, like the questions outlined above, teachers can promote positive habits of mind as well as foster reflection, empowerment, and resilience in their students. These factors will go a long way towards students being able to take control of their own learning and ultimately, their own destiny.