When my daughter Becca prepared to teach kindergartners for the first time, she came to me for advice. Given that the students I had been teaching for the past thirty years were in grad (not grade) school, I told her I had nothing of any use to her (no news there).
“Imagine,” Becca said, “that I’ve taken a sacred oath to ‘first do no harm.’ Now what advice would you give me?”
Without giving it a second’s thought I answered, “Don’t let school chew the students up and spit them out. Don’t let the competitive environment (where kids vie for your attention) pit the students against one another. Don’t let right and wrong answers leave some kids feeling smart and others not so smart.”
“How about teaching the curriculum?” Becca asked, “I’d think that would be my first priority.”
“If a child learns the curriculum, but comes to believe he or she is unable, unworthy, or unskilled, then it will have come at a great price. School experiences, like it or not, play an enormous role in defining a child’s self-image—their expectations of who they are, what they can do, and who they’ll become.
“So Becca” I continued, “my advice would be to take special care. With every letter you teach and every number you introduce, make sure that you transform ‘giving the wrong answer’ into ‘taking part in a learning journey.’ Then, find methods that help each child excel and gain confidence.”
With that hopelessly condescending piece of advice hanging over her head, Becca walked into her kindergarten classroom. I had told her what to achieve and what not to achieve, but I hadn’t given her a smidgeon of advice on how to achieve it. I didn’t know how to achieve it. That was her job to figure out.
Two months later Becca invited Louise and me, along with her students’ parents and other family members, to “An Afternoon on Broadway”—a musical revue performed by—you guessed it—Becca’s kindergartners.
“I followed your advice,” Becca explained when Louise and I arrived. “I wanted to help each child gain the confidence to not only sing and dance with his or her classmates, but to willingly perform a solo. And guess what? Everyone volunteered for solos.” One look around and you could tell that the parents were far more nervous than the kids, who appeared surprisingly calm as they filed into the cafeteria and took their places on the risers.
As the cafeteria lights went down and the crowd hushed, Becca pounded the piano while thirty kids burst into singing, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” At key points throughout the number, a child would step out from the chorus and sing a stanza or recite a verse—with astonishing force and confidence.
I quickly realized that as delightful as the performance was going to be, half the fun was in watching the parents as their kids took the spotlight. They nearly burst with pride. Their children didn’t mumble their parts. They didn’t stare awkwardly at the floor. They didn’t giggle, stumble, and clam up. They boldly spoke their pieces and sang their songs as if they’d been on stage their entire lives (all five years). And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the kids took turns stepping to center stage and dancing a jazz number. I though their parents were going to explode with enthusiasm.
What made all of this singing, dancing, and reciting so extraordinary wasn’t merely that each child deftly performed a solo, but that they had done so while coming from ordinary backgrounds. True, this all took place at a private school, but most of the students came from families of moderate means. Several took two buses to get to school. About half of the children spoke English as their second language and did so with parents who were just learning English themselves.
The audience members leapt to their feet as the show came to an end and the applause thundered through the cafeteria. Finally, as the last “Bravo!” was shouted, the kids ran to their families where they were hugged, kissed, and praised.
And then something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. “Are you Miss Patterson’s mama and papa?” a woman asked as she approached my wife and me.
“Why yes,” Louise answered.
“We’re the Parks,” the woman continued. “We moved here from South Korea two years ago and feared the day Sammy would go to school. He’s small and shy, so we worried that he would get lost in the crowd. We were wrong. At first he was nervous about going to school, but every day he came home more confident and stronger than the day before. And then today—he sang, danced, and recited a poem—all solos. We would never have believed it possible!” Then the tears came. Both parents were overwhelmed. They went on to thank us for raising such a wonderful teacher—not merely someone who covered the topics (which she did magnificently), but someone who had also made each child feel admired, capable, and confident.
Once the word got out that Louise and I were Becca’s mom and dad, parent after parent approached us to express their pleasure in seeing their kids blossom in school—not only in the assigned subjects, but also in self-assurance. They were shocked when their child took to the cafeteria stage like a seasoned member of SAG. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it myself.
None of this happened by accident. Becca had taken to heart the admonition to build the children’s confidence right along with their academic performance. She loved and respected each of her students, and coached them to success. As the children succeeded in, say, math, she gave them one more gift. She didn’t poison their thinking by telling them they were good at math. She told them they excelled in math because they worked hard at math. That way, when they found math to be difficult one day (and they would), they’d figure if they worked harder they’d succeed. Children who are told they are good at math or music or whatever, when they eventually face challenges, tend to back off and figure they aren’t so good after all. When you focus on the fact that the children are succeeding because they’re working hard, this tactic eventually leads to resilience, confidence, and creativity.
Becca also aimed her “You worked hard” discussions at children who showed an ability to work and play well with their peers (an important but often ignored skill). When kids started to argue or got in a tiff, she taught them interpersonal skills (using role-plays), with special attention to kindness and respect. And when the kids eventually learned how to solve interpersonal problems in a kindly and respectful way, she explained that it was because they had worked hard. Because they had worked hard.
And so had Becca.