02 March 2008

Self of Steam

One of the interesting things about being an English teacher is that I get to hear all sorts of funny stories – stories that are, at least, funny to English teachers. They almost invariably involve a student’s improper use of words. A very experienced teacher once told me a story about a high-level student who referred to a character’s loss of confidence as a loss of his “self of steam.” Something had hurt his “self of steam.” Needless to say, the student writer should have had his “self of steam” taken down a few notches.

Many students have little or no idea what the term self esteem means. Many students think that it just means feeling good about themselves or feeling that they are worth something. What’s more, some students have a sense of entitlement when it comes to self esteem, meaning that they believe no one or nothing should threaten their self esteem. It is theirs and it must be enhanced at all times.

What these students miss, what they apparently haven’t been taught well enough, is that self esteem isn’t something that can simply be given or taken. It has to be earned through actions.

Too many times, though, students with over inflated self esteem refuse to see that they are, in fact, learners and mistake prone. Failure – on a small scale – is not as big a deal as it is made out to be. Failure, falling down is the beginning of real success. (Failure is only a huge problem when it becomes a chosen way of life. That’s a whole different problem called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness coupled with sky high self esteem makes for the ugliest problem student in the classroom, and there are too many of them.)

The sad thing, from a teacher’s point of view, about misplaced and unearned high self esteem is that it tends to limit students. Students who worry more about losing face, so to speak, than about learning are bound to achieve less then they ought. Saving face implies falling down, jumping back up and being indignant that the fall never occurred. Learning involves failure, recovery, and reattempting. Truly durable self esteem only comes through the latter. The former is vacuous and (seemingly) easy.

I say seemingly because at some point the student will leave the cocoon of public education and enter the real world. The adult world tends to deal with unwarranted self esteem in a quick and cruel manner. Better the student learns the lesson while still a student.

The way I try to overcome over inflated self esteem in the classroom is by letting my students know up front that I expect them to fail at some point in my class. I also let them know that the failure is not the important thing I let them know that it’s the getting up, the getting back on the horse that is important. I back this up with many stories of my own failures…and more importantly, what I did afterwards. This fail-recover-succeed cycle is where durable self esteem comes from. Once students understand and embrace this, learning occurs on a more rapid, predictable basis.

1 comment:

Jack N said...