Encouraging Students to Persevere

Whenever we are building our capacity in a skill or content area, we have peaks of understanding and valleys of struggle.


Anyone who has tackled learning an instrument, a foreign language, or a physical skill like skateboarding understands this well. For every beautiful run on the piano, we have 30 runs where our fingers slip and hit the wrong notes. But how did we gain the ability to play the beautiful run in the first place? Practice.


There are always moments in learning where we feel like we have put in a great deal of time and think we should already be good at it. When we are wandering through those valleys of struggle, it can feel like we will never reach a peak again.


Teaching kids perseverance is important here, and it applies whether they are trying to master algebra, biology, the violin, or gymnastics. Continued, focused practice will get us where we want to go, but we have to have the stamina to continue so we can reach the next peak of understanding. 


I love how Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about this. He said how we feel about this struggle determines how well we will do when learning something. He writes, "Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the 'feeling' that your present level is who you are and who you will always be."


I'd like to emphasize that last part. When we are in the valley of struggle, we believe that we will never get past our present level. But that is not the case. If we keep working, keep trying, keep learning, we will advance. Perhaps not on the timeline we wish it would happen, but it will happen nonetheless. 


Coates says the key is in how we deal with the struggle. 


"I must manage my emotional health," he writes. "Part of that long-term management…is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it."


We can always go from sucking to succeeding if we give ourselves enough time and practice.