My (apparent lack of) peppiness as a helpful comparison for lack of student achievement

Every morning, all the City Year people at my school stand outside for half an hour as students arrive in the morning and greet them with various chants and cheers designed to get them excited about their day and to generally increase morale among the students, faculty, and staff. Basically, we want to start off their day in such a way that they feel like school is a happy/fun place where they are loved and respected.

While I have always been very quick to greet people I cross paths with in the morning, the “power greeting” we are expected to do is certainly not something I am used to, nor is it something that comes particularly naturally to me. I have been working hard to push my comfort zone and do this chanting and dancing and cheering and rhythmic clapping and stomping as well as I can. Over the last few weeks, I have definitely started feeling more comfortable doing all of these things.

Since I have been working on this and since I felt like I was improving, I was very surprised and disappointed when a colleague told me today that my peppiness is not only insufficient, but in fact my lack of peppiness actually negates the peppiness of at least two other people, so I am letting down the team. I certainly appreciate the feedback and it is very disheartening to apparently be the weak link. Later in the day, our team leader spent several minutes reminding us of the importance of this part of our work and how it is required. I have no idea what prompted this, but due to my earlier conversation, I felt like I was letting the team down somehow.

I literally have no idea how I could improve my peppiness. I felt like I was doing pretty well, and certainly better than I was a few weeks ago. I’ll certainly try to get some pointers from some other people in the group on how I could improve.

Besides making me feel like a terrible person, this experience has provided an interesting avenue for some empathy with my students. City Year focuses its efforts on students who are off-track in terms of their attendance, behavior, or course-performance. I personally have never had any struggle in any of these areas whatsoever. Academics have always been pretty easy for me, I have never really gotten in trouble for anything (once in junior high, I forgot to turn in a paper and got a lunch detention), and I’m pretty sure I have never had a single unexcused absence or tardy.

Therefore, it is often hard for me to visualize how students in these positions must feel or how my potential interventions could affect their emotions, thinking, and decisions. So, the bright side of my apparent morning cheering ineptitude is that it gives me an approximate way to take the perspective of some of my students, who may be in a similar situation related to attendance, behavior, or course-performance, as opposed to morning cheering.

More importantly, I now have some new insight into how best to structure an effective plan to improve a student’s outcomes in such a scenario (or at least how NOT to).

For me, the morning greeting is something I am very motivated to do effectively, something I have been working hard to improve on, something I feel like I HAVE been improving on, and something for which I am deeply aware of how my team depends on my personal success.

Typically, I’d consider it to be a pretty big success if I could help a previously academically unsuccessful and seemingly unmotivated student to develop one or more of those mindsets about their academic work or about school in general. If I were to observe these mindsets in a student, particularly if none were present before, I’d conclude that this student was definitely on a much clearer path towards academic success.

However, it is also the case that this student may sometimes get a test back with a grade that she is not very happy with. In this situation, reminding that student about all of the reasons (s)he was already motivated to try to get a good grade is not very helpful and could, in fact, be counterproductive. Rather, this student just needs some support and some practice with whatever it was that (s)he was unsuccessful with.

Over the next few weeks and months, when trying a new strategy to support a student, I will try to do a series of quick thought-experiments where I think about a few current mindsets the student might have (“I am good at this;” “I am bad at this;” “I really want to do a good job;” “I never get a good grade;” “my parents really want me to get a good grade;” “I wish I didn’t always get in trouble;” etc.) and think through how a student with each of those mindsets might respond to a particular thing I might say to them.

Certainly, it is helpful to try to talk to them and uncover much of their mindset about school, with takes some of the guesswork out of this process, but going through the possibilities in my head seems useful to remind myself that I really don’t always know how the student is feeling, and that I should mentally test out things I might want to say to see if they would actually be helpful in all situations.

Telling me I’m letting down my team is not very helpful when trying to improve my morning greeting cheering ability. Giving me concrete advice is. For someone else in a different situation, it might have been just the opposite.

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