Success Develops Confidence

Education isn’t really about the subject being learned, or the specifics of the topic being practiced.  No, education is about changing who we are for the better by learning how to get more out of ourselves.  An education should change you, change you think, how you see the world and it should change how you carry yourself, for the better.

The following is a story of how facing challenges and experiencing success did just that.

Like a typical freshman girl, Cristina was sometimes awkward, shy, and on occasion, over-reacted to situations. And like most kids, she had more going on in her life than just school.  But, she had a great desire to be successful in the honors math class I taught, Cambridge Math.  However, the challenge was great, and likelihood of success…well, not so great.

See, the previous year, the first our school participated in the Cambridge program, not a single student passed the end of course examination (IGCSE).  In fact, only 8% of students in Arizona passed that year.  To further complicate things, I was now appointed as the new teacher for Cambridge and there was a huge learning curve ahead of me.

So there we were, Cristina and I, facing a difficult situation together.  I’d never taught any honors program and know the teacher that taught Cambridge before me is a quality teacher.  And Cristina, as well as the other students, had never faced a course like this.  At the end of their sophomore year they would take a pair of hand-written tests.  To prepare for the tests the students had two school years to learn everything we teach in Algebra 1 and Geometry, most of what is taught in Algebra 2, Probability and Trigonometry, as well as large portions of Statistics and a handful of other topics not usually taught in the US.  To make it more complicated, most of the test required complex thought and application of concepts in unpredictable, unteachable ways.  To have just 8% of students, and these are honors students, pass in the state of Arizona was alarming to all of us!

Cristina did not stand out as a particularly strong math student.  In fact, when speaking with her mother one day, her mother said, “Cristina’s going to do what Cristina is going to do.  However the day strikes her will determine how the day goes.”

She passed the first year, but not without tears and heartache as she received far lower grades than she ever got in middle school.  There was a lot of frustration and the decision to stay in Cambridge her sophomore year, or move to an easier regular class, was considered at some length.

During her sophomore year she became pretty inconsistent, often sabotaging her own efforts.  I believe she saw herself as a weak math student with little to no chance of success.  Often when we see ourselves in a particular way we unknowingly take steps to fulfill that expectation.  This was unfortunate in Cristina’s case as she’d sometimes lack the discipline to complete homework, and often when it was completed, it was done so in low quality…just to get it done, not to promote learning and to practice.

On one occasion in particular Cristina was become very frustrated with her lack of progress.  Her performance had been suffering, grade dropping and agitation was on the rise!  During class that day we were working on a complex problem, the type they’d see on the difficult portion of the end of course Cambridge exam.  Cristina wasn’t participating, not even working on her own.  I asked her to work and eventually she snapped at me, “Why do I have to do this?!?!”

She’s not a bad kid, and as I mentioned, she had some things going on outside of school that added to her stress.  But, the fact remains, she was sabotaging her own efforts with inconsistent work, poor work ethic and sometimes bad attitude.

Cristina, like many students, would often say things like, “Let’s just get this over with, I’m going to fail anyway.”  I believe those are defense mechanisms, designed to take the sting out of the potential failure.

I encouraged all of the students to try, without reservation.  If they try their best and fail, it’s a win because our best is plastic…it improves or diminishes depending on what we demand of ourselves.  I believe that students that try their best and come up short will over-come, they will succeed!

When test day finally arrived Cristina was a nervous wreck.  I was a nervous wreck.  The students took the tests and we mailed them overseas to Cambridge University to be graded.

And then we waited … and waited… May to August we waited.

The night before the grades we to be released I had nightmares about having to tell students like Cristina that she did not pass.

Cristina passed the Cambridge exams … she did something that over 90% of participating honors students in the state failed to do!  Not only did she pass, she smashed it!  Maybe I’m wrong, but the experience seemed to change her. I believe the success she experienced, not just my class, but her other Cambridge classes (equally difficult) gave her the background to KNOW, not just hope, that she was capable of such difficult tasks.

Cristina just graduated High School.  I spoke with her about writing this blog post about her, and she consented, hoping that sharing her story would embolden others to try their best to achieve their goals, with reckless abandon…swing for the fences, as it were.

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