Struggles. No one likes them. Most don’t want them. Some live most of their lives avoiding them. Few embrace them. But, like change, they are the only constant in life.
As adults, we know that life is not doing only the things that are fun or the things that we want to do. No one truly enjoys paying taxes, having a stressful situation at our job, or colonoscopies. It’s never fun or comfortable to sit in struggles. But, those small struggles contribute to the community, provide us with challenges and ways to grow, and keep us grounded or humbled.
As kids, we learn our needs are met as soon as we emit a peep: the hands making grabbing motions to be carried, the cry we elicit to be fed, or the hugs and warm beds when a thunderstorm comes barreling our way. Oftentimes, help is right around the corner in the form of parents and grandparents and if we’re really lucky neighbors, family, teachers, friends, and sometimes random kind hearted people.
As parents and teachers we tell our kids that the struggles are how we learn.
But as a society we also attempt to hide how we struggled. We boast about how we made it through without so much as an inch of effort. We all know the stories we stretch into tall tales. We see those social media accounts showing the ease in the attainment of wealth and attention. We hate being vulnerable, insecure or showing weakness. In the duality of this, kids are left thinking, “Now what?”
When I taught high school, each new school year I had siblings or friends of former students who boastfully told me, “Miss, so and so said your class was easy.”
This annoyed me to no end because it wasn’t easy. I was notorious for having full “re-teaching sessions” after school. A community partner often would come by to talk to me after school and he walked into a packed classroom like it was during the school day. Anyone who knows my teaching days, knows how much the kids struggled and many buckled when they were expected to work, challenge themselves and learn every day. What was expected by me was not in their normal world.
I have a kiddo who tells me other students at his school brag that they finished an 800 page book. My kiddo’s retort is, “Yeah, well, did you understand it?” He gets it that the length is not indicative of the depth of understanding. But this same student shuts down when something gets hard and challenging. His parents tell him that no one ever starts off as an expert and that they struggled too. Work in progress. Their family support system is so strong and they have right sized expectations. But, it’s the mentality at school that sabotages this kiddo; too many other kids “flexing” their “non struggles” in the attempt to fit in or feel secure.
Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in his book The Last Lecture about “The First Penguin Award”. This award was created by Pausch who awarded it to a team of students who “took the biggest gamble in trying new ideas or new technology, while failing to achieve their stated goals.” (149) He then explains, “The title of the award came from the notion that when penguins are about to jump into water that might contain predators, well, somebody’s got to be the first penguin.” (149) He also notes that the award was originally called “The Best Failure Award” but that the word failure has too many negative connotations that the students couldn’t get over it and accept it. Pausch’s lesson with this award is that “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” (149) Nobody likes to fail, but it is the only way to gain enough experience to learn, pivot and adapt, and get better. But this type of embracing of failures is rare in academia.
In addition to fighting the stigma we have against struggles, we also live in a perfectly curated world of social media, photoshop and filters, which makes the struggle process even harder. We share stories of the fun we have, the savory food we are about to devour, the beautiful scenes we experience, and the family time we spend together. We rarely share the zero bank balance, the crying on the floor or the lonely Friday nights by oneself trying to "make it". We only share fails that we think are funny and will get likes or sympathy. Oftentimes, we overshare or post the unknowing struggles of random strangers for views.
In sharing these stories, who are we really hurting? I don’t think it’s us. It’s the silent ones watching and learning from us. It’s the ones who stop trying because the world made them think if it’s not easy, then they’re stupid and won’t ever get it. It’s the ones who feel inadequate around friends because they study more and longer than their friends. It’s the ones who learn the things society values when they see what gets our attention online and on tv. It’s the ones who are afraid to ask a question in class out of fear of asking a dumb question. And it’s the ones who won’t expand their wings or push themselves because they’re doing it wrong because the world makes them believe if it’s hard then they aren’t capable.
In my tutoring experience, teachers even publicly shame those same students who ask questions in class causing everyone to be uncomfortable and be silent or to laugh the uncomfortable off. It’s one thing to not have tried and failed, than to have tried so hard and shamed for the attempt. That’s what I mean by it’s not embraced in academia.
Is it possible to normalize that struggles are a part of life and that new things are hard? Can we start a movement? Maybe. Can we start with ourselves and our immediate tribe? More likely.
How are you creating a safe environment where kids can fail? Is the focus on the grade or the mastery? Remember, colleges don’t look at grades until 9th grade, and even those are arbitrary. Good study habits, positive attitude, flexibility, problem solving, grit, patience, respect, character, courage, and resilience are all needed for a solid foundation and all come from experience.
Would you say you’ve earned your “First Penguin Award”? What experience did you learn from your award? Let’s all earn our “The First Penguin Award” and maybe learn to do it more often.
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