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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Do We Contribute to the Stories of Our Students?

By Peter DeWitt — November 08, 2015 4 min read
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At first, it sounds odd to think that our students would have a story. Unlike our stories, their story is in its beginning stages. We don’t often think of our students as having a story because they are so young. And then, like one of those Magic Eye’s that we stared at from long ago, we realize that the more we think about our students we know that their story is unfolding as they move forward.

And for better or for worse...we’re a part of it.

We all have stories, don’t we? Some of our stories are less about tragedy and more about a less dramatic, natural progression through life. Others of us have seen more tragedy than we care to discuss with people. Picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off has been a constant cycle to the point that we wonder when the black clouds will move over to let in a little sunshine.

It takes a while to wait for the other shoe to no longer drop.

I have struggled. It’s something I have shared before. It wasn’t that I thought I was struggling at the time because it was so prevalent in my life that I assumed others struggled as much. It was just that we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t categorize it as a struggle...it was merely the way our life played out.

Long story short, I lost all of my grandparents by the time I was six or seven years old. I always love to hear friends talk about their grandparents with fondness because I never really knew mine. My dad’s mom died last, but my mom still has the big green Godzilla she gave me for my sixth birthday. The hand that shot out has long been lost, and the lever in the back that makes its tongue stick out is broken in half, but it still provided joy for my nephews, nieces, and great nephews and niece for years.

It wasn’t long after that my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and he died when I was in 5th grade. Fifth grade...which was the year after I spent a second year in 4th grade with Mrs. Flynn. My saving grace were my brothers and sisters...and most importantly my mom.

A year later, I sat at the dinner table with my mom struggling through my 6th grade homework as she took on the goal of getting her GED. She did it because her husband of 27 years asked her to complete her GED before he passed. Imagine what it must have been like to be 48 with five children between the ages of 12 and 25, and you go back to get your high school diploma.

Truth be told, I used to hide from my struggles. Pretend that they never happened. Quietly walking out of a freshman homeroom when I was a sub-sophomore because I didn’t want my friends to know I was in a homeroom with kids two years younger than me. Pretending that I didn’t graduate fourth from last in my class with SAT scores that were so low that years later I was not academically eligible to run in one of the two community colleges I failed out from.

For me things changed because the words of my high school coaches Patrick Sweeney and Bob Underwood never left me although at the time it seemed as though I wasn’t listening. When Ron Mulson (affectionately called “Coach”), my coach at my third community college, told me to go into the Learning Assistance Center (LAC) everything changed for a number of reasons. A 1.7 GPA to a 3.86 in one semester.

It wasn’t until my friend Elaine Houston, an anchor I worked with at our Albany, NY NBC affiliate, told the story on air that I mistakenly told her after a sentimental email sent after two glasses of red wine, that things began to change. I was 35. Elaine said that I should “Share my story.”

Our kids need to share their stories too...

I think of all of those times that I couldn’t sleep at night because I wasn’t sure what I would ever do with my life, even though people never thought that I would consider even having a future. All of those times when I was surrounded by adults telling me I couldn’t do something at the same time I was surrounded by siblings and a mom who told me I could...even after two, three, four, or five failed attempts.

What Story Will You Help Write?

As we move forward during these holidays, where the nights get longer and the daytime light gets shorter, and our patience grows thinner...what story will we help our students write? Will we focus on the things they can’t do, at the same time we tell them it’s important to have a growth mindset?

How can we help children move their own dial, so they aren’t controlled by their expectations? How can we get our students to understand that they do not have to repeat the same stories that their parents may have repeated form their own parents? How do we get them to rewrite it?

When we step in to tell our students that they can do better, what are the words we are using to inspire them to believe they can? What are our actions? I may have lost a dad at a young age but I had more with my mom than some people have with both parents. How can we get kids who didn’t win the lottery of parents that I won to move past what they hear at home?

We know that teachers with a low level of efficacy don’t think they can help students rewrite their own stories, but we have many, many teachers who know they can and contribute to the tragedy instead of a story with an inspirational ending.

We should try to inspire students to rewrite their story...because to quote my principal friends Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, #Kidsdeserveit.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.