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Start the Year by Building Hope

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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I always loved the first day of school. By the time September rolled around, I was somewhat bored with summer. I looked forward to seeing friends I hadn't seen for months, having great academic success, and meeting new friends. I had new clothes, new supplies, and a renewed hope for a great year.

All that lasted for about two weeks. I soon discovered that the social barriers were rigid, so making new friends was a much greater challenge than I knew how to navigate. Most significant was that within two weeks, I already knew which classes I would do well in and which classes would be a struggle. It felt like my fate was sealed as the days began to form a pattern that lasted throughout the year.

Many students come to school full of expectations. Many are like mine, mostly positive. For these students, we must plant the seeds to keep this hopeful attitude strong throughout the year. Other students are less positive or very negative. For these students, we must provide the seeds of hope to change their initial negativity.

I know of at least four major ways to either change negative attitudes or maintain positive ones. I'm sure there are many more. These are my favorites because they truly work.

1. Make Personal Connections

Nothing helps a student more than a teacher who shows that she believes in him, and cares about him as a person. We have all had that teacher who genuinely cared about us who made a significant difference in our lives. As my cousin Joannie Krystal once told me, "We need to tell those who have lost hope that we will hold that hope in our hearts for you until you are ready to believe it for yourself."

It is a good idea to greet students at the door as they enter the classroom two to three times a week, with particular attention to those students who need attention the most. Say something like, "I think we're going to have a great class today. I'm glad you are here." While they know that we care is very good,  feeling that we care is even better.

2. Make Success Attainable

Children tend to give up hope the minute they see that success is unattainable. There are a number of ways to keep success attainable for all students. The most important is never failing a student who shows that he is trying. It's far better to help a student feel that he hasn’t yet learned something than that he's failed at trying. If a student demonstrates effort and fails, what more can you ask them to do?

We can also focus more on what a student does right rather than what she does wrong. Because students can only absorb a limited amount of correction, limit yourself to no more than two errors per page, the most important ones. Tell students what you are doing so that they realize there may be other mistakes that you chose not to correct at this time. The students then work on a few important targeted errors instead of throwing the paper away in disgust.

3. Make What You Teach Relevant

It is very hard not to feel hopeful when we think that what we are learning will actually make our lives better. For students to feel this way, our pitch must include the present as well as the future. It's not enough to say, "Reading will help you get a better job when you graduate." We must also show how reading helps today. Begin by asking yourself, "Why do I love this subject and why do I want my students to love it, too?" The answer can lead you to why the subject has relevance.

Sometimes the answer is, "I don't love this subject, and I can't find any relevance, but I have to teach it anyway." Obviously, this is a problem, because your students can feel that emotion in you and think, "If my teacher doesn't even need this, why should I?" Now what? The best answer is to stop teaching it, but unfortunately that option isn't usually possible. Try finding another teacher who does see everyday and future relevance to the subject, and borrow his or her reasons. Maybe if you dig a little deeper, such as reading something from a strong advocate, you'll see a new side of the question.

4. Express Passion and Love for What You Teach

Who are the singers, actors, and athletes we most admire? Chances are that we choose those who perform with genuine passion. Passion is contagious. It touches us in ways that say, "I believe in this, and so can you." One tactical way to achieve passion in your teaching is to teach one thing that you love, or to teach one thing in a way that you love teaching. Think about how much joy that lesson will give you as you enter the classroom. Passion doesn't mean jumping off the table. It means loving what you are doing in the classroom and expressing that love the same way that our favorite entertainers express it to us.

Whatever we can do to make the whole year a hopeful place, a place where students believe in themselves, is worth whatever time and effort are required to make it happen.

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Strategies for Kicking Off the New School Year

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Your cousin is very wise - it's one of my main strategies to hold hope for students when they can't hold it for themselves. Part of this is knowing our students well and holding their history and past successes. In my school, we teach students throughout their time in high school - but in a school where students switch teachers each year, I wonder if you could incorporate this through reaching out to previous teachers and making sure you know at least one success story for each one of your students. Then when students begin to lose hope - you can say, 'hey, it feels hard right now - but you've actually succeeded in the past, and I believe in you that you can do it again.' And for those students who haven't experienced that success in the past - it becomes that much more important for us to help them along and experience it with us.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Alex, yes my cousin is very wise and does wonders with her clients who are so abused. I love your idea of sharing stories, not only with previous teachers, but future teachers as well. I'm so glad to hear from caring teachers like you.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Short and sweet Rick. You have a knack for taking what some of us think is obvious, (but unfortunately isn't for many!), and turning it into wise and helpful advice.

I always enjoy reading your blogs!


Christhillgate's picture

Students tend to do well in subjects taught by teachers who care and know what they teach. Teaching is not a one size fits all. People who don't love to teach, shonldn't be teaching at all.

Quite inspiring!

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