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Beyond the Label

Jul 29, 2021

When I reflect on my time in the classroom, I remember how many different labels each new class of learners brought to the table...gifted, dyslexic, ADHD, twice-exceptional, English language learner, I could go on and on.  We all know that this will be case this year as well.  I wanted to take a little bit of time to address our perspective as educators and how detrimental it can be when we allow labels to determine that perspective.  Let me explain...

You see, the reality is that when we find out that a learner is gifted, often times, our perspective shifts and we begin to focus on and notice their strengths.  When we find out that a learner struggles, our perspective shifts and we begin to focus on and notice their weaknesses. I believe that as educators, it's so important that we begin the year with a strengths-first mindset.  What I mean by that is that I believe that we should look for strengths BEFORE we begin to acknowledge and attempt to address weaknesses.  The reality is that without knowing a students' strengths, it will be really difficult to address their weaknesses anyway.

So, how do we do that?  How can we intentionally find ways to look beyond the label and begin to see every one of our learners in a way that will lead to success and confidence both in the classroom and beyond.  Below are four ways that I believe that we can make this a reality.  

1.  Recognize and VALUE both strengths and weaknesses.  While I think it's important that we identify strengths first, there is also value in helping our learners recognize and address their weaknesses.  I know so many learners that are working under the assumption that they don't have strengths or they don't have weaknesses. 

The reality is that every learner has both.  You will have students in your classroom that may never pass a worksheet or standardized test but they can go home and put a car back together or speak three languages.  So many of our learners have gifts that we will never see simply because we don't take the time to look beyond the school experience.  

The same is true for their weaknesses. Many of our learners are amazing students.  They have never made less than a 95 on any assignment and quite frankly, just know how to play the game really well.  However, some of those learners have no idea idea how to collaborate or make their own decisions.  It's important that while we want to identify and recognize strengths first, we don't forget how valuable it can be to understand our weaknesses and the role that our strengths play in addressing those weaknesses.

Finding ways this year to help our learners identify their strengths and the strengths of their peers will give them the tools that they need to address their weaknesses.  

One practical way to do this is to use Thrively at the beginning of the school year.  Encouraging every learner to take the Strengths Assessment within Thrively will help you, as the educator, and your students know their strengths, interests, and what they aspire to be.  Having this information will be beneficial all year along and provides a meaningful learning experience for the first few days of school. The Strengths Assessment takes about 45 minutes to complete and is perfect for grades 3-12.  I would suggest allowing students to work on this for approximately 10 minutes every day for the first week fo school.  At the end of the week, you will have the information that you need to know your students well and help them make connections to what is being learned.  

2.  Reinforce the right things.  So often, we reinforce what our learners produce or the outcome of a graded assignment or test.  I think that reinforcing the life-ready skills that it requires to earn a good grade, follow through with commitment to an assignment, or even overcome frustration when the outcome is less than what our learners desire is even more important.  You see, the more a gifted learner hears the words, "You are so smart," the more they begin to doubt themselves or feel like a disappointment when they don't feel smart.  They begin to think it's who they are.  When "smart" becomes your identity, there is no room for anything less than that.  The same is true for our learners who hear the opposite message.  If we continuously focus on their weaknesses or flaws, they will begin to think they can't move beyond those difficulties to accomplish whatever it is that they want achieve.  

However, using phrases like, "I really like the way that you collaborated with ____________ to learn more about this topic," or "I saw how you took time to reflect on what you did well and didn't do well today and I couldn't be any prouder.".  Maybe we say something like, "I realized that you made the decision to choose the more difficult assignment on the choice board today.  I'm so excited that you were willing to step outside of your comfort zone to challenge yourself."  Do you see the difference in these statements?  I love this idea and I think reinforcing the right things might be what many of our students need to see beyond their labels and into who they really are and what they need to get the most from any learning experience.

3.  Encourage productive struggle.  This is a hard one.  If you are like me, watching my students struggle was so difficult.  I often wanted to save the day or at least save them in that moment.  I felt like it was my job to keep them from struggling.  It wasn't until I began to realize that productive struggle actually provided my students with the skills that they would need to not only succeed but survive beyond the walls in the classroom that I began make productive struggle a priority.  When I did, it was difficult for me, my students, and their parents.  

We often consider struggle a sign of weakness or inability to move forward and nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, struggle makes us stronger and helps us realize our ability to do hard things.  Our learners can often learn more through productive struggle than any assignment that they breeze through without any difficulty.  It's the struggle that prepares our learners for reality, helps them identify and value both their strengths and weaknesses, and gives them the tools that they will need to succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.

I think we can encourage productive struggle by designing for depth.  I talk about this often and how important it is that we consider both our snorkelers and our scuba divers in the classroom.  In a one size fits all classroom, many of our learners will never experience struggle.  If we are so focused on our struggling learners that we do not intentionally design for our scuba divers, they will simply show up every day, check off the boxes, and never fully engage in the learning.  Designing for depth provides an opportunity to EVERY learner to engage and be challenged.  To learn more, visit Design for Depth

4.  Create a culture of willingness.  Willingness is defined as the state of being prepared to do something or readiness.  Many times our learners are unwilling to do hard things because they are afraid of failure or lack the drive that is required to invest.  Regardless of a student's label or the labels that exist within our classroom, it's important that we build a culture that encourages a willingness to fail, a willingness to invest, and a willingness to dive deep into what is being learned.   

I often times think about surfing when I think about the willingness of our learners.  You never see a surfer just hanging out on their board with their knees locked and hands by their side.  Instead, they are completely immersed in the experience.  They are constantly challenged, knowing that they could fall off of the board at any time, and will need to be willing to get back on.  I think that's what learning should look like.  Our learners should be immersed in the experience as they are challenged each and every day.  

In order to accomplish a culture of willingness in any classroom, the reality is that we, as educators, must model a willingness to fail, willing to invest, and willing to dive deeper.  It's so important that our learners so what it looks like to take risks, invest as lifelong learners, and dive deep into new experiences and unfamiliar content.  

So, that's it...four ways to look beyond the label this school year.  Remember, it's imperative that we don't allow labels to determine our perspective.  Stay focused on who your learners really are, what they bring to the table, and how we can prepare them academically and for their lives beyond the walls of the classroom.  I believe that when we begin to do these things, our learners will respond with a willingness to invest.  

Have a wonderful 2021-2022 school year!  Let's do this!

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