I’ve been teaching elementary school for nineteen years. That first year I was terrified! It was a third grade class, and I had gotten an Emergency Credential, which, in my case, meant I had been hired to teach while I was still in school learning to become a teacher. As a result, I had never stepped foot into the classroom as an instructor until that first day in the summer of 1997.
There was a young man in that first class, Peter, who, I was told had special needs. He was smaller than his peers, and he struggled academically. I was told his mother was a prostitute who had been taking drugs during her pregnancy with Peter.
Early in the school year I assessed the students to learn what their reading levels were. I called Peter over and asked him to read the passage in front of him as best he could.
“I can’t read,” he told me.
“It might be a little tough,” I responded, “but just do the best you can.”
Peter wouldn’t look at the passage before him. Instead he looked me dead in the eye and repeated, “I…can’t…read.”
And, that was that. He wasn’t going to read for me, not even attempt the first word, and being a new teacher, I didn’t know what to do but excuse the boy and call the next student over.
During that first year, I found Peter reading support in a first grade classroom where he was “the third grade helper”. I also bought him a board book with a few words on each page, the first book he’d ever owned. That book was read to him everyday, and he had memorized it. He was so proud. He would “read” the book to me, turning the pages, repeating the memorized words, all the while looking at my face (not the book) for my reaction.
The last week of school I found a picture on my desk, a simple smiley face with stars bordering it. I recognized Peter’s work immediately. When I looked toward his desk, he was staring at me, proud of his creation. I called him over and asked why he had made the picture for me. “Because you helped me read.”
I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but looking back I realize I was instilling belief in this young man. He had suffered failure early on and didn’t believe in himself, so when I initially asked him to read, he refused to even try because he believed he couldn’t read.
Apparently my role in this was to help Peter believe in himself. I let him “read” his book to me everyday. He saw himself as a helper to the younger students. This gave him confidence and changed his perception of himself. Once Peter saw himself as a reader, then that’s exactly what he became.
Years later, I have children of my own, two daughters, twelve and sixteen. And, that year with Peter was great training for what was to come, years as a father. My wife (she teaches grade school, as well) and I instilled belief in our girls early on. And, I think the earlier we do this for our children, the less road bumps they have to contend with as they move forward in their lives.
Our youngest was interested in science when she was six or seven, so we bought her science kits, read science books, watched videos about scientists, let her join the school’s science club, and we talked to her about being a scientist when she grew up. So, she believed she would be a scientist one day… until she became interested in computer animation. So, we instilled the belief that she could be successful in this area, and this is her current belief. We’ve done the same for math, art, writing, and video production for our two girls. As a result, there’s rarely been an “I can’t.” Through there actions we know they believe “I can.”
What we’ve learned as parents is that our daughters seemed to always try to fill the shoes we helped lay out for them. Instead of focusing on their deficits, we point out their strengths: Your free throw form is getting so much better, You’re a natural in the kitchen, You always make me laugh, I could see you writing a book one day. And, the girls internalize these and see themselves in the words we’ve said aloud.
We all tend to do this. When you hear that you’ve got a knack for sales or that everyone wants to you to perform during Karaoke Night, suddenly you want to prove them right. You believe you are good at sales, so you push a little harder to make those words valid and real. You sing with more confidence expecting people to enjoy your song.
Well, as parents we have the privilege to be that voice for our children early on, and often, helping to mold their belief in themselves.
It took a year to help Peter find the belief that he could read, but that’s because he was eight years old. We had to break down years of self-doubt and build him back up again. That means if we start instilling belief early on in our children, they’ll be able to see themselves as scientists, mathematicians, video producers, computer animators, or even readers much earlier and easier.