“Your Son Is Smart, But…”
From a very early age, I was acutely aware of my shortcomings. Why? My teachers reminded me of them on a weekly, if not daily, basis. And those frustrated reminders communicated one thing very clearly to my developing mind: My own teachers did not believe in me, so why should I believe in myself?
I dropped out of school in 11th grade. Years later, I became a high school teacher. And during my time as an educator, I have often reflected on what led me to drop out.
It is worth noting that I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) as an adult — and going undiagnosed all those years was a factor in my struggles, no doubt. But I have also come to see how my teachers and the system contributed to the struggles that ultimately led me to drop out. Among the many issues I wish my teachers had understood, paramount is fact that I received very little encouragement in school, and that built up inside of me.
That’s not to say no one cared. I remember clearly the teachers who recognized my abilities: the 2nd grade teacher who gave me an award in science class; the 7th grade teacher who often reminded me that I was smart and capable; the high school history teacher who told me I had the potential to study history in college. These educators helped me develop a confidence that I could succeed, even when the evidence for this was otherwise obscured.
Unfortunately, these encouraging teachers were the exception to the norm. I was so frequently reminded about my shortcomings that they came to define my self-perception. And years later, when I became a successful student, I struggled to enjoy my accomplishments.
“Jonathan is smart, but he lacks focus, he lacks drive, he struggles to stay organized, he turns in assignments late or he does not turn them in at all, his handwriting is sloppy, his work is sloppy.” Teachers generally prefaced their criticism with a compliment, but their overwhelming focus was on my struggles. They did not seem to believe in me and so it was hard for me to believe in myself.
After dropping out of college — twice — I made it my goal to get an A in every class. While this target helped improve my academic results, I also became a perfectionist — an unhealthy critic of any effort that did not end in an A. The schoolteacher-driven narrative had crept into my subconscious.
I graduated college with a 3.3 GPA, which was a solid accomplishment considering my past and the fact that I worked full time. But when it came time for me to graduate, I did not think I deserved a graduation party. I believed that I should have graduated much earlier (I was 35) and I believed that my GPA should have been higher.
The view of my teachers all those years earlier had fostered self-esteem issues that I still struggle with today, and honestly, I’m still not sure I deserved that party.
I am not implying that we ignore students’ weaknesses. But if we want students to achieve, we need to help them believe that they can achieve, rather than continuously reminding students of their shortcomings.