Getting It Right

Many times in both educational and parenting circles, we hear talk of how important it is to develop resilience in our youth to see them through the challenging times. It is an essential ingredient in the fight to combat the epidemic of anxiety and depression that seems to plague our teens. Yet from both a parenting and teaching perspective, it is a quality that is monumentally difficult to instil successfully. In today’s age of helicopter and lawnmower parenting, coupled with the instant gratification culture borne of the smartphone and internet age, the cultivation of true grit and determination in our kids seems to be an uphill battle.

In saying this, however, I saw a wonderful example of resilience in my classroom this week.

I teach Year Seven. The unit we have been studying involves students writing and presenting a motivational speech based on a social, environmental or sporting context. The aim was to use persuasive language features and oral presentation skills to inspire and motivate their target audience.

Not easy for thirteen year olds.

Not easy for adults!

One of my best English students enjoys speaking in front of the class and he enjoys making people laugh. He is very intelligent and personable, although doesn’t always enjoy constructive criticism when offered it. He is not arrogant or rude, just secure in himself and prefers to back his own abilities. It is enviable given his age that he feels so self-assured, kudos to his parents.

However there are times when we all can benefit from the input of others, and being able to take this on and use it to our advantage is not always easy.

This student wrote his speech and adopted a somewhat casual manner, addressing his classmates in his usual Year Seven way, and overdoing attempts to be funny in his written transcript. I gave him written feedback, which he took on in parts and made some small changes, however I obviously didn’t make my point clear. He didn’t seem to understand that he was making his key focus about being funny, rather than the dismal state of the environment, which really is no laughing matter. In short, I suggested he adopt a more serious tone and concentrate on the facts and persuading his audience.

He went away and worked further on his speech. I carried on, feeling relieved that I had seen his draft before he performed and it hoping he hadn’t been too perturbed by my comments.

About a week later, a few days ago, he took his place at the front of the class and began his speech. Even though he had changed parts of it, I knew he hadn’t fully understood what I had been trying to tell him.

Perhaps he thought he could carry it off, and that it would all be fine once he dazzled me with his performance, but it wasn’t.

He was not going to get the mark that he was capable of. He had backed himself a little too much, and I was truly torn as I watched his attempt at being humorous in his opening not working out as well as he hoped. It was a risk, as I didn’t want to embarrass or upset him, but after about thirty seconds, I stopped him.

He was going to do badly on a task that I knew he could absolutely nail.

Speaking to him outside, I explained that I was going to have to give him a mark he really wouldn’t be happy with if he didn’t make some big changes to his speech. I told him to go home that night to work on it and I would give him until the next day.

The next morning I was approached by this boy at the start of the class. He had written a whole new speech, based on his experience with me the day before, and how he had overcome his own personal struggle with this assessment piece. It had humour, which he explained was his strength, and so he had decided to change his topic so that he didn’t have to lose this element from his speech. He politely asked if he would be allowed to present his new speech.

It was great. I had goose bumps as I read it. Not because it was brilliant as such – although it was very good – but because of how he had taken the whole experience and turned it into such a positive for himself. It was a far better speech than the one he had written previously. He displayed such a degree of resilience and grit. He could have gone home, sulked, had his parents on the phone, given up, blown it off and stayed home sick, anything really. But he didn’t.

His new speech was motivating other students not to give up, and to stay determined even when staring down the barrel of failure so that they too could be great. He had incorporated all the persuasive language devices we had discussed in class. I could see that he was truly proud of himself.

Here is an excerpt:

As a lot of you would do, I thought, ‘Oh man, you’re just a traitorous, treacherous teacher, what do you know? Turns out she knows a lot. So I adapted, improvised and overcame. I STAYED DETERMINED just like a baby turtle when it’s trying to get to the water.

Emailing his parents that afternoon, I could only imagine how proud I would feel if my son had shown such strength of character. We all hope to equip our children with these qualities, but ultimately there is no guidebook for exactly how this is done. How do we ever know if we are getting it right?

One thing for me was certain: this boy isn’t the only one in his family nailing it.

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