Potential can seem like an odd and mysterious thing. We can’t see it, touch it, or scientifically measure it. There’s no way to lay out a student’s potential on the table and get a sense of how immense it is. But we know it’s there, and as a teacher, you also know that a big part of your job is help your students fulfil this strange and life-changing thing they carry inside of them.
How do you bring forth these latent qualities in your students? We interviewed two former teachers – Mary-Anne Houlden and Nardin Hanna – for their suggestions. Here are their best.
Learn what scares them, and what drives them
If there were such a thing as a confidence wand, it would be wonderful to be able to give it a swish before every lesson and watch as your students confidently tackle their work. But in reality, most children (and adults) have a laundry list of fears that keep them firmly pulled back; fears that should be slowly discovered during your time in the classroom so that you can teach inclusively.
This takes time, patience, and a healthy supply of caffeine. It’s harder to help your students realise their potential without first knowing what scares them, and then giving them tasks to help overcome these fears; starting easy, and slowly getting more difficult as they gain confidence.
Similarly, every student will be driven by particular things; things for which they’ll be intrinsically motivated to persevere and knock it out of the park. One child might love writing stories, another creating scientific experiments, and another balancing equations. To realise their potential, it helps to know what these are so that you can give them the right tasks at the right difficulty. This is the essence of inclusive teaching. Know your students as best you can!
Give them a variety of opportunities
School is a place of discovery for children, where they can learn what they are great at. To do so, they need a variety of opportunities. That means reading, writing, listening, debating, constructing, acting, painting, competing in competitions like ICAS, and everything in between, for every core subject, so that they can determine what they are good at for themselves.
Without these varied opportunities, your students may never discover the talents that lie within them. Maya Angelou’s teacher cultivated Maya’s love of poetry by taking her to a library and reading to her. Patrick Stewart’s English teacher introduced him to Shakespeare after recognising Patrick’s potential as an actor. And Bill Gates claims there is “no way there’d be a Microsoft”1 without his maths teacher pushing him a little harder after recognising his talent.
These wildly successful people may have had very different lives if their teachers hadn’t given them the right opportunities, pushed them out of their comfort zones, and encouraged them to be their best. Your classes may be sprinkled with dormant stars, waiting for your spark to ignite them.
Create “try your best” mindsets
If your students aren’t failing, they probably aren’t being pushed hard enough. Anyone who breezes through a task – child or adult – obviously already has the knowledge or skills to do so, and while these kinds of tasks can be helpful to build their confidence, they aren’t learning anything new.
You must teach your students the value of getting something wrong; that it’s not a loss, but a signpost for what to work on next. They must cultivate a mindset that says “this is tough, but it doesn’t matter if I get it wrong. What matters is trying my best.” This is essentially Carol Dweck’s growth mindset: viewing challenges and setbacks not as a reflection of their character, but an opportunity to get better.
Praise their courageous efforts every time they try their best. You’ll help to build invaluable resilience, and a class filled with confident self-learners.
Help them to create a vision
Goals can be potent motivators. They give us something tangible to work towards, and if we care enough about them, they fill us with seemingly endless amounts of energy. The broader form of a goal is a vision – a larger, grander, and more meaningful objective that can shape the course of our lives.
The classic question that encourages children to think of a vision is “what would you like to be when you grow up?” While this is a useful question to ask, it doesn’t have to be that predictable. A vision can be anything. One child might want to learn how to speak Korean so that she can talk with her grandfather. Another may be fascinated by the smallest particles in existence and wants to eventually work on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. One little girl may dream of one day writing her own episode of Bluey, and having it animated and aired for all to see. These beautiful, unique visions can be printed and stuck to their desks or workbooks as a constant reminder of what they’re trying to achieve.
Every vision can be broken down into smaller goals – improving language skills, getting better at exams so they can achieve an A+ in Chemistry, becoming an engaging creative writer etc. – which can give your students a strong sense of purpose. You’ll know exactly what it is they would like to focus on and practise, and as a result, you can help them achieve their vision.
Create a safe learning environment
Imagine if you suggested something important in a staff meeting and everyone laughed at you. Unless you were the keeper of an uncommonly strong sense of confidence, you probably wouldn’t say much for the rest of the meeting. Maybe the rest of the term.
As our species evolved, its very survival depended on us fitting in. As smaller, less developed versions of ourselves, this drive is amplified in children. So, as their teacher, you must do everything you can to ensure that they feel safe in the classroom. Show them that their contribution is valuable, time and time again, undoing any past traumas in the process. Shut down laughter or bullying from other students firmly and consistently. Draw shy students from their shells with casual questions, and enthusiastically celebrate their correct answers. Slowly but surely build the confidence of every single student and show them that your class is a place where they can fully express themselves without being shamed.
For your students to fulfil their potential, safety is a foundational need that must first be satisfied. Potential is kept under lock and key without it.
Build their soft skills
A great deal of learning happens when children interact with their peers. They’ll ask each other questions, work through solutions together, explain their thought processes, and more, all of which require critical soft skills like communication, initiative and teamwork. Ensure that you give them plenty of opportunities to work together and try to entice the more timid students to contribute. Give them tasks that help them to develop their empathy, so that they might better understand each other’s feelings and how to navigate them. Set clear expectations like raising your hand before speaking and turning assignments in on time, to teach them what it means to be disciplined. Help them develop their critical thinking skills with competitions like ICAS.
Without soft skills, your students won’t be able to become effective self-learners, and their potential may be wasted. This can be tied back to their career aspirations too. If a student wants to become a mechanic, you can work on their attention to detail. If they want to be a nurse, you can develop their empathy. That’s another reason why having aspirational, long-term visions can be great motivators for your students.
Don’t wrap them in cotton-wool
It’s understandable, even admirable, to want to protect children from unpleasant feelings. Watching them frown at their calculus problems or pull their hair out over The Great Gatsby might create an urge to dive in and save them with the right answers, but as you undoubtedly know, this defeats the purpose of giving them work in the first place.
Frustration, embarrassment, anxiety, despair, and a variety of other negative emotions are the natural consequence of students challenging themselves. They create brief moments in time where they can either choose to succumb to the pain of the emotion, temporarily withdrawing from the task because it’s all too much, or gather the courage to face the difficulty head on. And every time they choose to be brave, they are weakening the power of the negative emotions by discovering that they’re not so bad after all – a temporary, necessary result of striving for greatness.
Children will never have the opportunity to learn these important lessons if they’re overly protected. Challenges (and plenty of support) can make heroes out of them.
- Teachers of HPE: you are awesome, and we want to celebrate you, The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation