Bridget Varner

1st & 2nd Grade Teacher

Deerfield Elementary School

Cedar Hills, Utah

Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Bridget!

Reaching the student who isn’t willing to try

There is something magical when a teacher hears students busy at work! As a second grade teacher, I love the moment when students are engaged and involved in learning. I love to see students gather tools, collaborate, and start writing ideas down.  

One day, as I was teaching math, I started checking in with students and noticed one student was sitting silently and not working. This type of student is common in many classrooms. Some students think they aren’t “good at” this subject so they aren’t willing to try.

When students aren’t willing to try, I first check for understanding. I had her tell me what she was trying to solve and asked if she had any ideas. I encouraged her to try her idea and tell me if it worked or not.  I had her share her idea with the class. I didn’t show or tell this student the answer. I gave encouragement and let her know it’s okay to try and fail and try again. She didn’t need to get it right the first time.  

“If I’m not ready, I can’t do this”

In the educational world, there is a lot of talk about students being “ready:” ready for end of year tests, ACT ready, college ready. For a second, think about when you started a new job, entered a new relationship, visited a new place, or did something new. Were you completely ready? I would guess the answer is probably not. We can’t always be ready for something new. We are not always ready but we can always learn as we go. I understand we want students to do their best and being ready has its place, but when we only focus on being ready,  we lose students. Students internalize this message as, “If I’m not ready I can’t do this.” This makes them unwilling to try. If a hint of unknown is there, they refuse to attempt the task for fear of failing. Our talk of readiness is hindering some of our students.

What if teachers, parents, and administration instead focused on whether or not our students are willing to try? Will students try something new? Are they willing to attempt a problem if it’s hard? Are they willing to take a test again if they didn’t pass the first time? Are they willing to go to college even if they have a lower ACT score? Are they willing to invent, create, try, fail, and try again? As we discuss student readiness let’s also talk about students willingness!

Building student willingness

I’ve learned that a willing mindset is best taught in action. When students are struggling and tell me an assignment is hard, that’s when I teach them it’s good to try even if they get it wrong at the beginning. I’ve found this is best done encouraging one student at a time. I tell them it’s okay to get it wrong. When they don’t understand something, I tell them that’s okay and that’s why everyone keeps going to school. When they do understand it I purposefully have them teach other students or share work they did correctly. This builds their confidence so much. After they teach other students I see them be more willing and excited to try! I love it!
Now, at the beginning of a math unit, I let students try the most difficult problem on their own. I give them opportunities to use skills they have and try to solve a problem before I teach all the different parts of the unit. Students share their ideas and thinking. Even though they still have a lot to learn, it’s great to see them be creative and problem solve.

Ready AND willing to learn

As a teacher, I want my students to read on grade level, think critically, and do well on tests. What is even more important to me, however, is that they are willing to try! I want my students to be willing to try and solve difficult math problems, willing to try to read a new word, willing to talk to someone new, try out for a team, and even be willing to attend college without a high ACT score. Success usually doesn’t happen quickly or at the moment we plan. Success happens as we keep trying and keep moving forward! We want all of our students to be successful even if they haven’t been successful yet! So, let’s not only talk about student readiness but also about student willingness.