we can do hard things

From the very beginning of my teaching career, my kids flourished when there was fun in the classroom. When there was laughter and joyfulness. There were times in my fourth grade classroom when I would all of a sudden become aware of a terrible feeling of grinding and trudging and I would interrupt whatever I was doing and we would name it, talk about it. Point out that we had not laughed in awhile, so it must be time. I would instruct them to put away whatever we were working on (usually math, not gonna lie) and join me in some kind of joyful brain break activity. Sometimes we physically moved our bodies, standing up and jumping and wiggling around, sometimes all out dancing, making weird noises. Sometimes I sat on my stool and read terrible jokes and riddles from the internet. Sometimes we went out for extra recess. Whatever we did, it usually did the trick and we were able to return to whatever hard thing we had set down for a few minutes.

That is the phrase there, though. Hard thing. Learning can often be hard, in different ways for different people. It can be hard all day for a student with a disability as their constant companion. We have heard so much about growth mindset in the past ten years or so. It was the next big thing, understand how our brain works when we learn and changing our thinking about how we approach new ideas and concepts. I vividly remember the day our staff was informed that we were going to read a book about growth mindset. Together. As a staff. My brain immediately said ” Just kill me, please.” Fortunately, I did not say that with my outside voice, so did not have to explain my knee jerk negative reaction and ruin everybody else’s fun. It was a close call, though.

I am naturally averse to “the next big thing” in education (and diet culture.) I am of the mind that there is nothing new under the sun that does not lead back to relationship with students and helping them manage their learning, while adding to their personal toolbox things that I have found to be helpful along the way. We all learn differently and I am sure that any day now, some scientist will discover that sarcasm triggers neurons in the brain to do amazing things. Kids are wired to learn from day one. But by the time they get to me in 4th or 5th grade, they have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous daily life. Some of them have been through terrible trauma; some are still living in that trauma now. Some are dealing with unidentified disabilities, some with being completely identified as their disability. That teeter totter swings both ways.

Invariably, unfailingly though, learning was hard. Not when we were reviewing or learning concepts we had already learned, of course, that was pretty fun and sometimes entertaining. (Vikings Reader’s Theater, anyone?) I am talking about that one thing, for that one kid, that is just HARD. In that moment, you can invoke growth mindset catch phrases if you want to, probably no harm done. However, I have found that in that moment, a sincere admission that this, whatever it was, was HARD was very powerful for getting that kid unstuck. Yes, this is the truth. Let the heavens resound with the truth of that thing being hard for them. But there was one more true thing to remember, and that was: We Can Do Hard Things. All of us, together, no exceptions. Usually not on our own, or without (sometimes expert) help, but we actually can and do Do Hard Things all day long.

At first, their eyes might glaze over, depending on how many times I have invoked this phrase with them. Eventually though, they seemed to take a deep internal (sometimes external) breath and become ready to try the hard thing again. Not alone, with help, again. And sometimes again.

We are all beginners in something, if we are committed to trying new things. That “beginner’s mind” in meditation is considered a very valuable tool to cultivating self-compassion, and then compassion for others. Acknowledging the hard thing as hard, finding or accepting a companion, taking that deep breath and then beginning. Again.