“If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”
I always share this quote with my eighth and ninth grade students at the beginning of each school year. In August, they’re filled with promise, with messages of hope and faith from their parents, and confidence that this will be their year. That change will happen.
Progress grades after four weeks usually show improvement. They can commit to change, and are seeing results. They are starting to feel good. Their parents are proud.
Four more weeks go by. Tests, projects, essays, and life start to blur their focus. They’re not getting enough sleep, and it’s hard to see the end of the quarter. October is a hard month.
Eight weeks later, when quarter grades come out, their little balloons burst. Some have slipped back into old habits. Their calendars are sparse, their backpacks stuffed with paper, unfinished assignments, and smelly gym clothes. parents have begun to nag, panic, and in desperation, sometimes blame the teachers.
It’s my job to pick up the pieces. Rebuild their shattered hopes, and cheer them towards the finish line. You can do it! Look at your progress in the long run! You’ve come so far! Don’t let that one test/paper/homework/detention slow you down!
I often wonder what really holds kids back. Is it the fear of success? Are they more comfortable in that middle place of a “C” or “D” grade, when they’re still passing but no one puts too much pressure on them to be ‘perfect’? Is it a lack of trust that what teachers and adults are suggesting will really work? Or maybe it’s all a natural developmental phase; kids trying things their way, regrouping, and trying again?
Is school really getting that much harder? Or are we just approaching it differently? Are the stakes raised for kids, families, teachers, and colleges? What exactly are we expecting from our children?
Finding a balance for teachers and parents is tricky. We want to hold up high expectations, knowing that they have ‘potential’. We want them to strive to do better, work harder, and get into a ‘good’ college. We hire help – economics tutors, SAT prep, math courses, and whatever we can do to say we’ve done our best.
I always come back to the kid, and that intangible, unteachable asset that seems to mark those that make it through the bumps, hurdles, and hard times of middle school: intrinsic motivation. I saw it during my trip to Indonesia last summer – those kids wanted nothing more than to learn English and make it to the U.S. for college. They understood, “No Pain, No Gain” like many of my students cannot. They couldn’t afford tutors-they just had to work hard.
The bottom line is, the kid has to want it. They need to have a supportive base, caring people who will encourage and not accept responsibility for their actions. They need to have people who are firm, consistent, and unconditionally love them. They need to celebrate the small victories and regroup after the defeats. They need to see the glimmers of hope for their future – to see who and what they can be when, diploma in hand, they walk into adulthood.