3 Ways to Help Students Define Themselves

Here is a true and personal story about my life.  As a kiddo, I LOVED school. It was a safe, stress free place where I found a sense of community.  I was successful at school and it made sense to me. I was outgoing and friendly and would do anything to gain the approval of my teacher.  I was the student who shot up their hand to answer every question, help out the teacher, or support another classmate.  

However, one day, I became acutely aware that my eagerness as a student wasn’t always looked upon favorably.  I was seated on the carpet listening to the teacher read a very engaging picture book on being a good friend. The teacher would pause and ask questions throughout the story.  Sitting in the front row, criss cross applesauce, I hung on the teacher’s every single word. With each question my hand took off, not only was it raised, but it was waving, and I made audible sounds, “ohh, ohh…” in my brain I was screaming “PICK ME, TEACHER!”  She called on a few other students here and there, but at times I was the only student with my hand up. I would respond with my answer and maybe launch on a small tangent to illustrate my point thoroughly. Toward the end of the lesson, the teacher was getting tired of asking questions with only a single student knowing the answer (me).  My classmates were getting restless. The teacher asked a question that all of the students should have known the answer to.  Again, I was the only student who rose their hand. The teacher saw my hand, gawfed and slammed the book in her lap.  Then she said in a startlingly loud voice, “Does anyone OTHER than Sarah know the answer!?”  

I was mortified!!!

My brain was spinning. Was the teacher displeased with me!? Did I do something wrong?  Should I not answer questions?  

The event never left my mind, but the inner monologue changed as I continued to navigate school. “Don’t talk too much.  Don’t be a know it all. Don’t seem so eager. Give others a chance. Don’t be annoying.”

Looking back, I do not blame this teacher, nor do I think they did anything wrong.  I use the story to illustrate how easily students can create inner narratives that define them as students, even humans. These narratives may be created unintentionally, however their power remains.  What defining moments create or change these narratives for our students? How can we produce moments that create positive narratives?  How can we be mindful of creating narratives that are negative? How can we help students redefine their narratives?

I am stupid.

I am slow.

I can’t read.

I am not good at Math.

I keep trying.

I never give up.

I can get better.

I belong here.

I am enough.

I am not defined by singular moments.

I can change my inner narrative.

How can we support students as they navigate school and define themselves? How can we support their inner narrative? Here are three things to keep in mind.

#1 – Take It One Moment and One Student at a Time  

These mental narratives are strong and will take a ton of work to inspire or change.  It took a lot of time to prove to me that my plethora of ideas and opinions were actually valued in group settings and that I wasn’t that annoying student (although I am sure I still have my moments).  Stick with it and keep at it. Especially if there is a negative narrative that you are trying to change. It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to undo a negative experience.

#2 – Be Genuine

Students can absolutely tell if your praise is disingenuine.  They can see right through you. Don’t force it. But monopolize on every opportunity you can to reinforce an idea or praise a given behavior or attribute that you want to foster.  

#3 – Be Specific

“Good Job.” or “You are so great.” is not helpful feedback.  What specifically makes the 

student great?  What specifically did they do that was great? How can they be great again?  I like being told that I am great. It makes me feel…well…great. The why behind the praise is so much more powerful and so much more believable.  Give specific feedback and praise the action that you want to see more of. For example, “It was really great how you continued to revise your thinking to come up with that thoughtful answer.”  

What is your inner narrative as an educator?  How do you define yourself? 

As your coach, I am here to tell you.  YOU CAN! You can positively impact your students, you are not defined by your failures.

YOU CAN influence how your students perceive themselves.  

YOU CAN help our students create inner narratives that tell them, they are not defined by singular moments and they are the author of their own story.  

YOU CAN do this!  For more help please CLICK HERE to download a free staff activity that will help your team give students specific growth oriented feedback.

Sarah Hayden
Instructional Coach, TEEN TRUTH

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