Today when I was visiting a classroom, I witnessed an awesome exchange between a teacher and student. The class was engaged in a discussion about focusing on things they can control and choosing their reaction. The word “initiative” came up and a student raised their hand to ask what the word meant. The teacher’s initial response was this:
“You just took control of your own learning. When you weren’t sure, you asked a question. You took ‘initiative.’ Way to go! Way to take charge of your learning.”
I was so happy to have witnessed this moment. A moment where a student was being celebrated for not knowing an answer. I’ve tried to be very intentional this year in talking about struggle. When I have the opportunity to work with students, we talk about struggle before an experience, during the experience, and after the experience. At first, it felt strange to talk about struggle after a learning experience turned out to be successful. But the experience wouldn’t have been successful without persevering through the struggle. As educators and leaders, we have the opportunity to normalize struggle by talking about it as part of the learning process. Can you imagine an environment where there was no fear of not being perfect the first time? A learning environment where adults AND students didn’t feel hesitation or self-doubt? I believe that we can chip away at some of the negative feelings we have when we are outside of our comfort zone by normalizing struggle.
I’ll be honest- when I was in the classroom just a couple of years ago, I didn’t make this a priority. I typically went right into asking students to reflect on what worked or what went well. The same is true with my role as an instructional leader. It is easy to skip over the struggle in our fast paced environment. We want to honor the greatness in one another and forget that we can do that by celebrating the struggle. How many questions do we ask at school that include reflecting on struggle, or when the work is hard? To ask about struggle is to value the effort and contributions that people are putting into their learning every day.
I know that there have been many times, even this year, that I have wanted to step in and be the hero instead of allowing productive struggle. It is during times like this that I remember the importance of balancing giving students time and space to grow with process feedback and questions. The same can be said for educators. I believe that if we are going to truly build collective efficacy and capacity, we need to honor productive struggle by balancing support with time and space. What does this mean for us? It means that we should be free to struggle without judgement- without someone stepping in immediately to tell us how to do it the “right” way. We should have the opportunity to reflect and adapt individually and with others. If we don’t ever have the chance to do this individually, we may wire ourselves to think that we can’t learn or make decisions on our own. The struggle is real! It’s normal! It is part of the process. To have learned is to have struggled!