Teaching a kid about self-image does not improve a kid’s self-image. (More common sense.)

Common sense: Get a kid to set goals and start doing work. Self-esteem will improve as he attains his goals.

By the time I was twelve, I could hammer a nail, straighten a bent nail, saw with a handsaw a two by four in two on a straight line, use a coping saw to perform curved cuts, use a pair of pliers, use a pair of vice grips, catch a fish, clean a fish, sharpen a buck knife with a whet stone, whittle wood with a buck knife, shine my own shoes using spit and polish, cook spaghetti, cook cinnamon rolls, make a salad, brew tea in the sun for iced tea, peel potatoes, onions, and carrots and cook them, build and light a campfire, pick grapes (from grape vines), grow tomatoes in real dirt, peel an orange in one piece, throw a curveball and a knuckleball, execute a perfect hook slide, bunt, draw, scale both a wooden fence and a chained link fence, tell a joke (What did the Daddy Buffalo say to the Kid Buffalo when he dropped him off at school? Bi – son), and play the piano and guitar. None, I repeat, none of these things were learned at school. I set goals to learn them. These goals were probably not intentional, but I wanted to learn how to do these things – so I did. Parents or grandparents taught some of them, some were taught by coaches, and some were self-taught.

Please, don’t let me be misunderstood

Early in my career as a teacher, a mom who wanted the best for her son, asked me how I could possibly give him failing grades on work at which he tried his best. When I explained that he failed to accomplish the goals of the assignment, she informed me, “But your job is to build his self-image to the point where he can do the work.” Now, on its face, this sounds wonderful and it sounds altruistic, but the statement is flawed (besides being passive aggressive by telling me how to do my job.) Complimenting someone for something which is not true is flattery; rewarding someone for a goal unmet is flattery. Flattery does not build self-esteem. Rewards do not build self-esteem. Learning skills reaps rewards, and one of those rewards is a sense of accomplishment. Accomplishment builds self-esteem. Praise for accomplishment builds self-esteem.

The mom did not understand that a middle school teacher has one job: to provide a transition from elementary school to high school and help a child develop skill  necessary to make that transition. Grades indicate how well that transition is taking place. Grades indicate accomplishment.

Now, I fully realize that we, as teachers, do infinitely more than that, and building a child’s self-esteem is only part of our job. However, self-images are not built by handing a kid presents every day. Ron Clark states in Molasses Classes, “Not every kid deserves a cookie.” Free rewards injure a kid in the long run. Free rewards produce spoiled kids.

Self-esteem is built by setting goals, by working toward those goals, by accomplishing those goals, and by setting new goals to do harder work. I believe it matters what a child thinks about himself or herself. It’s important. But lying to a child never helps the child.

The uphill battle to a downward spiral

In middle school, most students don’t think of themselves in a positive light. So, I encourage my students for work well done, for upright behavior, for prompt performance, and for excellence in academics. While I do encourage them about who they are and where they are going, it’s also my job to get these children to survive in the real world – and sometimes there are hard lessons to be learned. Yet, they learn them within the safety net of a classroom.

Nothing injures the way a kid feels about himself or herself as much as comparisons with others. Girls in middle school subject themselves to social media, television, computer, motion picture, and video images of other girls that are prettier, more popular, better looking and more developed than they. Boys lift up sports idols, music idols, and media idols that they can never be. The comparison is relentless and illogical, yet it persists no matter how much preaching, teaching, or “speeching” you do at them. So, how can a teacher build a young man and young woman into someone who is proud, secure, and still humble? Set goals.

Some of the lessons students learn in middle school should have been learned as a first grader. For example, I do not accept schoolwork that has no name on it. If a student cannot remember his or her name or has not learned to write his or her name on a paper in seven years, I break this habit in the first fourteen days of school. A no name paper gets an “F” with no possibility of redoing the paper. In fact, I shred this work and compost it by feeding it to my red wigglers (worms) and putting the worm castings into my garden where I grow tomatoes for salsa that I eat during summer break. Mmmm! No Name Salsa! Very few students forget to put their names on their papers after having me for a teacher for fourteen days. Evidently, some elementary school teachers enable these students to get by with this for years – or they would have developed the habit by grade three.

After trimester two, I do not accept work late – at all! Eighth grade teachers do not accept late work, and high school teachers definitely do not accept late work. The real world does not accept late work; why should I? The DMV does not accept late work without a monetary penalty. TSA does not accept late work. Bosses do not accept late applications or late work. Colleges do not accept late applications.

Accommodations exist for students with learning disabilities. For students with learning disabilities, a good self-image is attainable through accommodations made within the structures of public education. This is a good thing given the abuses of the past perpetuated on children by well-meaning adults. However, one of my special needs students balked at every accommodation made for her. She wanted to do the same work as the student next to her. With some extra time and some scaffolding, I was able to do this (which is called “an accommodation.”)

IEPs, 504s, and accommodations

To new teachers: Teachers, resource teachers, psychologists, administrators, and sometimes speech and occupational therapists, gather and formulate an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a medical 504 (This requires a doctor’s diagnosis and recommendation for accommodations.) These plans list the accommodations and modifications that will be made in the “least restrictive environment” enabling the child to be successful. These meetings can be relatively short or they may last for hours. On occasion, parents bring an attorney or arbitrator that they have on retainer for just such a meeting to ensure that they are being heard and being treated fairly. If the latter is there, meetings may last several hours and may stretch out for days.

At the heart of these meetings, all is being done for the welfare of the child. Be as patient as you can in these meetings, and answer all questions calmly and professionally. A soft answer turns aside wrath. Recently, I left one of these potentially volatile meetings with a hug from the child’s mother just because she understood that I, too, wanted the best for her child.

Presently, I have 165 students in five classes of language arts. Sixteen of those students have IEP’s or 504’s. One of those students is getting an “A”. Most will get a “C”. Three of them do not do any work at all and will earn “F”. The self-esteem and internal dignity of the student getting an “A” is growing each day, but she works harder than some of my gifted students. Work results in self-esteem.

The easy road – just give the kid an ‘A’

Recently, I had a student whose father was on a fishing expedition (at state expense) to find out what was wrong with his son. He baited his hook and requested every kind of test that existed, wanted every kind of accommodation, and wanted almost every modification in the wishful hope that he could pinpoint the exact nature of his son’s disability. If he could pinpoint the disability, he felt sure that he could help his son achieve his goals. I am neither a medical doctor nor a trained clinical psychologist, but twenty years of experience as a teacher told me this: His son was lazy, did not know how to work, and needed no accommodations besides a foot being firmly planted on his butt.

One of his last requests was this: “Mr. Hanks, could you give my son A’s and B’s so he can be on the Honor Roll? The Honor Roll would do wonders for his self-image.” After the collective jaws of the principal, the psychologist, the speech therapist, the occupational therapist, and the resource teacher hit the table resulting in a loud, hollow thud, I politely denied the request. Rewards do not build skills.

There’s nothing wrong with work

The answer to building self-esteem is simple – work. Work builds character. Work builds the good kind of pride. Work builds something in a person that cannot be taken away. Now, the work given cannot be meaningless. The work must be skills-based and goal-oriented. Work that accomplishes a specific, measurable goal always builds self-esteem.

Set goals.

Teach skills.

Coach the student to work.

Turn in the work.

Attain goals.

Build self-esteem.

I held a parent conference for a student who did not complete or turn in any work – nothing. I asked his burdened mother, “Does he have chores at home that he must do to earn rewards or allowance?” “Oh, yes,” she replied, “Every night he pets the dog.”

Not every kid deserves a cookie. Enough said.

©2019 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.

Five skaters photo by Parker Gibbons.

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