Thoughts on Education

4 Easy Ways To Help Students Believe in Themselves

4 Easy Ways To Help Students Believe in Themselves

April 19th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson

Why Do We Focus on the Negatives?

The thing that frustrates me the most in life is negative self-image. In our culture, people often struggle to acknowledge their strengths and passions. They focus on weaknesses. It’s so bad that people often warp their strengths into sounding like weaknesses! Being “outspoken” turns into “I talk too much”. Being a “planner” turns into “I’m not spontaneous”.

I see this throughout our society. Where I see it the strongest is within schools.

Students are disengaged, disconnected, and struggle to find their value. It can show up as behavior problems or academic failure. Rarely is it a problem with the student’s ability to learn or interact with others. They act out and struggle because they don’t see value in themselves.

Maslow’s Hierarchy and How it Affects Students

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a popular tool used in sociology research, psychology training, and even management coaching. The insight is simple and profound – to reach our highest potential, we need to first have esteem for ourselves. To gain esteem, we must feel we our accepted by our peers. But we can’t process acceptance if we don’t feel safe, and we can’t even meet that need if food and shelter needs are not met. Without a base, students can’t aspire for higher levels.

Put simply, students can’t self-actualize and reach their full potential overnight. It takes work getting there.

Here is my question: do you think students are self-actualizing and reaching their full potential? Do you think they have esteem for themselves? Are they even socially accepted by a group of friends in school or their community? The more students I meet across the nation, the more I begin to doubt it. I think many students feel uncomfortable in their schools because they don’t feel like they belong. They don’t feel like they have value.

So how can we turn around students? What is the point of trying to get students to self-actualize if they haven’t even felt accepted yet? What is the point of launching a new STEM lab if students feel like they are outsiders? What is the point of bringing community-based companies to talk about careers if students think they won’t amount to anything in life? What is the point of encouraging students to “be the best they can be” when they think their best will never be good enough?

What is the point?

There is nothing wrong with STEM labs and career days and pushing students. Before we can do that, however, first we must convince students that they have value.

Change the Conversation: A Focus on Positives

“Jack, you seem like someone who gets the details right and are passionate about learning everything there is to know about how to play soccer better – and I think that is fantastic.”

Students need to hear affirmation. Not only do they need to hear that they are valuable, but they need to hear why they specifically have and bring value to others.

It’s a simple thing – and it takes time. But it pays dividends. I have watched students transform over the course of months when educators, leaders, and mentors speak life into them. I have seen them start to see themselves as people with something to give the world. They come alive. They transform.

So how do we do it? Here are just four ideas:


Here are 4 easy ways to help students feel their value:

1. Turn a Weakness into a Strength:

I once met a student who loved anime – but he felt awkward talking about it. It felt uncool. So I flipped the script on him. I talked about how watching anime was exposing him to Japanese culture and helping form an international perspective. I turned what he thought was a weakness into a strength no one else in the room possessed.

2. Push an Opportunity:

One of the students I knew well was complaining that he had to find a summer job. He goes to camps frequently, and didn’t know how he could find a job that would fit his schedule. So I pushed an opportunity on him and led with a strength. “Blake, have you thought about teaching English online? It’s really flexible hours, you can do it from home, and I feel like you would be great working with kids who are trying to learn English. You are a naturally patient guy." It doesn’t matter if he does or doesn’t do it. He heard affirmation.

                                        3. Challenge Them:

Sometimes I run into students who seem defeated. They have thrown in the towel, and given up on being a leader, or an engineer, or friendly - fill in the blank. They are stuck in an unhealthy self-pity cycle. Push back against these students. “I’m going to challenge you on that. You think you’re not an influence, but I see students every day follow you around and model your behavior. What do you call that?”

This only works with some students – but when it works, it is an effective wake up call.

4. Put Up Circles:

I saw this for the first time at a school recently, and I love the concept. It’s the reverse of a “put down”. You circle up the classroom, the group, or even the whole school. Students and teachers give call outs to each other for specific things they did that week that were great and helped the community.

Not every school will have the time to fit this into their schedule. But even if you do this as just an individual teacher, it can set a cultural tone of, “You have worth. You have value.”

This is why my favorite part of my job is when I am in front of students, especially ones I get to see consistently. I get to play a small role in seeing this transformation happen. It’s powerful.

Indigo transforms schools and districts. That’s part of the vision. We work at the administrator, faculty and student levels. On the ground with students, however, we are helping fight a much grittier battle. We are fighting to get students to acknowledge their own worth. We are fighting to get students to love themselves.

It’s hard work. But it’s the basis of any meaningful change we can make happen in a school.

There are Better Answers than the “No Excuses” Model

There are Better Answers than the "No Excuses" Model

March 23rd 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson

Almost two months ago, The New York Times released a video of a first grade teacher at Success Academy in New York City berating her students. The teacher, frustrated, tore up a student’s homework and told her to go to the calm down chair. “There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”

Nothing personal, but it sounds like the teacher needs to go to the calm down chair more than the student.

The teacher in question was suspended from the school for a little less than two weeks before being reinstated. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy, defended her.

That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying.
— Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy

Parents are outraged at the video – but not for the reasons you would think. At a press conference the school held, parents were actually angry against The New York Times.

I read the story in the morning, and I thought it was not only unfair — it was insulting.
— Youssef Senhaji, a father of three Success Academy students
I don’t understand why The New York Times thinks it has to educate me as a parent about the school that I choose to send my children to. I’m not some poor, uninformed parent or someone who is not aware of what’s available in New York City schools. I chose Success. I made that choice because it’s the best choice for my daughters.
— Natasha Shannon, a mother of three Success Academy students

The video has sparked a larger conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of strict discipline in schools. One of the leading voices in the argument acknowledging the gray zone in the issue is Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green.

It’s complicated, more so than you might think. Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera.
— Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat CEO

One of the chief conditions is an education philosophy called “No Excuses.” “No Excuses” advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning. It pushes students by giving no room for them to not give it their all. However, it can be argued that this makes the learning environment become hostile. Success Academy was in the news less than a year ago because students were wetting their pants during standardized tests. They didn’t want to lose time going to the actual restroom.

Do you want that in your school?

I understand that it is easy to criticize a school from the comfort of an online blog post. I won’t be so blind as to suggest students do not sometimes need to be addressed differently in certain behavioral situations. I also won’t be so dogmatic as to claim that this video discounts all positive impact this 34-school New York City charter network is having. Discipline, when facilitated in a healthy way, begets respect, temperance and character.

But here is a question I would pose to you: what if there is another way to instill these positive characteristics in students without an authoritarian approach? How can discipline dovetail with a healthy learning environment?


Replacing Punitive with Restorative

Schools are environments that deliver not only learning in the core subjects, but in all areas of life. It’s where we grow the next generation of citizens. So let’s capitalize on that – how can schools do discipline in a way that is conducive to the growth of our children and also teaches them how to later carry out discipline in society when they are grown?

Some of the schools we work with have a restorative justice program. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community involved. It focuses on learning to prevent the issue from reoccurring. For example: instead of suspending a student for saying something racist against Latinos, mandate that they go to two Hispanic events in the community and use what they learned to write an apology letter.

We are inspired by their approach – and we want to take it a step further. In the personalized learning system we are launching in the coming months, we want to give schools the option to explore how they want to improve their discipline and character development. It’s our hope that some schools will go a step farther and launch student committees that are in charge of creating restorative justice opportunities for their peers that help them grow as individuals and as a community.

It will be a challenge to make this shift. Not every Indigo school will want to make it – or they may have even greater needs that must be addressed first. But these are the types of questions we are constantly asking ourselves at Indigo: What are better ways for schools to get to their objectives? What are better ways for schools to get to even better objectives?

We are trying to find solutions so that we don’t live in a world where teachers feel like they need to yell at their students in the first place. There are answers – and we will find them.