Fostering Focus and Building Meaning Part II: Lessons from Your Kids’ Favorite Teacher
Does your kid have a favorite teacher? Maybe even teachers, plural? They’re amazing, aren’t they? The work your kid will put in for a favorite teacher...it’s remarkable, magic, and inspiring. I had favorite teachers. Still remember ‘em. I bet you do too.
I used to think that it was all about that favorite teacher. In my own work with students, I tried to emulate the qualities that favorite teacher for each one of them. It pushed me (still does) to see and hear my students, appreciate them for who they are beyond the ACT Test. Really, that connection is why I still do ACT prep, and choose to live my purpose on earth through Yellow Parachute.
...Do you sense the but coming? Well, here it is. After 20 years of this work, I still want to be that favorite teacher. But for a different reason. Now I think: What if it’s less about that ‘favorite teacher’ persona, and more about motivating our kids to express their highest intelligence, imagination, and effort. You see, they’ve already got all that good stuff inside each of them. We just get to be the ones who help them see it.
If each of our children recognized what he or she has INSIDE—what the favorite teacher brings out—it wouldn’t matter who the teacher was. [OK maybe it would matter a little bit, partly because hey, it’s fun to be the favorite, and partly because I really do believe relationships matter]. But once kids realize that they could do the same quality of work in every class because of who they are and who they know themselves to be, rather than who their teacher is. Now that’s a top-level goal.
So. What’s the next brave step in fostering focus and building meaning into your kids’ lives?
- Help them build relevance. You’ve pictured a goal and the steps to achieve it, you’ve noticed the triggers that create the most stress between you and your kiddo, and you’ve changed one little thing as a step to relieving it. Step 4 is a powerful one. But you’re prepared for it now, so let’s go!
What is relevance?
When students can see importance in what they’re doing or what they’re learning, it is relevant to them. Relevance can look different for each student in the classroom; in fact, it should look different because it’s a personal connection. Relevance pushes beyond the act of learning itself to a greater goal or good. It becomes the student’s why for showing up, even when the day is long or boring or tedious. In the favorite teacher example, that teacher creates relevance for the student —he or she becomes the why. And the why is what helps your kids push beyond what they want to do to what they can do.
In other words, we want them to cultivate value beyond their grades. Part of this is helping them locate themselves and their talents within a broader community, and recognizing how their talents can serve that community. The next step is understanding how the classroom serves those talents. Once you’ve done that, you’ve freed them from depending on their teachers’ opinions for their sense of worth. They know they can contribute something meaningful to the world outside of school.
A recent article in Edweek.org, The Teen Brain: How Schools Can Help Students Manage Emotions and Make Better Decisions, highlights adolescence as a huge opportunity in our kids’ developmental timeline to build connections. Sarah Enos Watamura, an associate professor at the University of Denver who studies the effects of stress on learning, said, “Adolescence is coming to be understood as a "second critical window" for developing skills to regulate emotions, making and evaluating decisions, and judging risk and reward. After years of childhood brain development, teenagers' brains focus on making strong connections.”
So how do we help our kids build these connections define personal meaning? Start by helping them notice what they like to do. What’s the default wonder or interest? What chores do they perform without you asking? Remember those self-discovery questions I posted on the blog this summer? Print them out and set them on the counter. Discuss them at random times for a week. Once you’d identified what they like, start talking about how that gift, talent, or interest can help someone else. Is there a business to build, a hobby to develop, volunteer work to do, or a part-time job that can let them investigate their interest further? Next, talk about how the “not fun stuff” helps prepare your kid for what he or she really wants to do.
A quick and vital aside before we move on: Sometimes as parents we can inadvertently send the message that our kids’ achievements aren’t good enough. And that perceived negativity sticks. They shove our compliments to the back of their minds and think, “Of course you liked my speech, you’re my Mom.” And they take our constructive (we thought) feedback as critical to their personhood. I hear echoes of these accidental wounds from my ACT students all the time: “They’re always mad at me about something,” “I feel like I can’t do anything right,” “Sometimes it seems like it’s more about them than it is about me.” And I’m so glad when they speak up because then I can help mediate. I have the opportunity to tell them that you, their parents, love them more than they can imagine. And you think about the past, present, and future versions of them, even when they’re just trying to stay afloat in the present. And sometimes love makes parents worry and fear because we care so much. So I tell them to reframe it the next time you have a heated discussion: “Wow, my mom must love me a ton to get this mad (which is often a sign of fear) about something this small.” After one such conversation, a sweet student said, “That explains a lot. Thank you.”
If you’re interested in hiring a mediator to jump-start these “building relevance” conversations in your home, Clifton Strength Coach Lisa Boes can moderate a thoughtful discussion. Her Strengths Path Series for high school and college students begins with the Clifton Strengths for Students. This approach surfaces the natural gifts and talents each of each client and focuses on how their strengths show up in learning and extracurricular activities. The final session focuses on developing an action plan to invest in strengths development. Three sessions with Lisa give parents and kids the eyes to see when strengths show up and the language to affirm them.
It’s life changing!
Why? When our kids see that we’re interested in knowing who they are and taking the steps to help them find out about their unique interests, we help them grow courage and confidence in themselves. And this knowing, this confidence, builds resilience. Resilience to feeling tossed in the wind and waves of social media, friends’’ flippant comments, too many activities to choose from, too many assignments to do perfectly, too much feedback, background noise, competing messages, peer pressure, and self-pressure. And knowing oneself is a step in becoming responsible for oneself.
Building relevance means helping your kids make connections between the work they’re doing now and top-level goals for later. It means building focus and meaning into the work because of who they are, not what they do or what anyone else thinks.
- Model. Experience. Teach. Repeat. I’m borrowing these four words from Pastor Brian Suter’s message at my Mom’s Connect gathering. “Model. Experience. Teach. Repeat.” evoke a powerful combination of vulnerability, authenticity, humility, and perseverance. Following this pattern can cultivate perhaps the greatest gift we give to our kids: showing them how to love and work hard at the purpose they’re designed to fulfill.
As important as those favorite teachers are, as much as we love and appreciate the messages they send when our own words fall on deaf ears, we, as their parents, have our kids’ ears for far longer. And I believe that WE TOO, can emulate favorite teachers—when we show our kids how we are learning, changing, and growing on the inside, we invite them to do the same. We model the act of trying is more important than the outcome.
And showing them is how we reinforce those positive qualities in our kids that their favorite teachers bring out. Establishing this pattern now will set your kids up to endure and thrive in any environment.
Whew. That’s a lot of information, so here’s a recap of our two “Foster Focus and Build Meaning” blog posts:
5 Step Summary: Foster Focus and Build Meaning into Your Kids’ Lives
- Build Space for Conversation. Step back from the hurry and patterns of everyday life to imagine the relationship you crave with your kiddo.
- Identify the Steps for Change. Think through the events or circumstances that cause stress and change them or the way you approach them.
- Pinpoint Obstacles (Be prepared). What else could go wrong or get in the way? Prepare for the worst, plan out the solution, and hope for the best.
- Build Relevance. Help your kiddo make connections and meaning in the work they do, no matter how small or big the task. What is in it beyond the task at hand?
- Model. Experience. Teach. Repeat. Show how you’re working toward who you want to be. Model, “This isn’t who I am but who I am working toward.” They’ll take your lead.
Questions that foster relevance-building:
What is it about that class/course that you enjoy?
Why do you think _________ is your favorite teacher?
Anything you need help figuring out?
I know you don’t like geometry. How could you think about the class in a different way?
How can you plan your nightly schedule around rewards for doing your homework?
Is there someone in class you can study with to help you?
Is there someone in class you can study with to help?
Can you set up a conversation with your teacher to get to know him/her?
What would make school more meaningful to you?
What did you do that was hard today?
When or where do you see that the effort you put in to something makes a difference?