Wednesday (5/25/2016) of this week, we received the results for the recently taken Algebra 1 STAAR exam. Every year, the state of Texas distributes the exam to high school freshmen (and to those who have yet to pass it). Students receive scores based on their performance and it is part of our duty to tell them if they pass or “failed.” I don’t love it, but the results usually line up with student effort, so there aren’t too many surprises. The results are a decent representation of a natural consequence related to student effort. The exam is a lot like life. Work hard, get a good result. Mess around, you’re going to regret it.
But this post isn’t about the STAAR exam. This post is about an underlying issue that isn’t receiving enough attention.
I have a lot of wonderful, hard-working students in my classes. I also have a lot of wonderful, not-so-hard-working students in my class…actually, let me rephrase that: I have some students who can’t stand to struggle for 10 seconds before giving up. I have students who don’t comprehend the word “work” beyond the understanding of an activity that is tied to a paycheck. Work ethic and ownership go hand-in-hand, and the lack of both in classrooms (and society) today is grossly frustrating. But, I don’t quickly blame the students.
She walked into my 6th period class. For the sake of privacy, we’ll call her Megan. Megan is the type of student you wish for in every class. On time, prepared, great personality, focuses, asks good questions, turns in quality work, and so on. She is the type of student I don’t really worry about not passing the Algebra 1 STAAR, because I know she knows the material, and I know she has what it takes. The problem is, everybody has bad days, and on test day, Megan wasn’t feeling it.
When results came back, there was an all-caps ‘NO’ next to her name. I knew she was going to be crushed. I was crushed for her. She hadn’t slipped up once in my class all year. If any student “deserved” to pass, it was her. But she didn’t, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to tell her. She came in with the same bubbly smile and the standard “Hi, Mr. G!” then took a seat to get started on her warm up, just like every other day. As everybody got seated I explained to them that the test results were in. Immediate shuffling, low grumblings of fear, and nervous excitement followed. With Megan’s result in mind, I led with telling the students that no score will ever define them as a person. I shared with them that it took me THREE ATTEMPTS to pass my math test. I let them know about a test prep course we would be offering as soon as school was out. I shared all of this to make it seem like not such a big deal if they didn’t pass. I was speaking to the entire class, but really I was talking to Megan.
As I called each student back, one-by-one, I quietly told them yes or no. For the ‘yes’ students, a quiet fist bump and a smile ended our meeting. The recipe for the ‘no’ students was a make-shift graph showing how close they were to hopefully instill some confidence and some encouragement during the bad news. When Megan came to my desk, she was smiling, nervously. I smiled back but shared, “Megan, you didn’t pass, but I have some great news.” She may as well have gone deaf in that moment. She wasn’t hearing a word I said. As I spoke, I saw her eyes get glassy, then red. After a few seconds, tears took over her cheeks. She was quiet, but her emotion was loud and clear. I told her to step out into the hall with me.
The day I gave students their results, I also made phone calls home to parents of students who were in danger of failing my class for the semester. It’s a routine practice that isn’t fun, but it’s just part of the process. One particular phone call stood out to me. And by “stood out to me,” I really mean boiled my blood and made me realize I will not save my child from every pitfall in front of them.
The phone call was to the parent of a student who we will call Carl. Carl is a nice kid, but he cares waaaay more about looking cool and being funny than he does about math. For a majority of the school year, Carl didn’t know when to work and when to play (there absolutely is a time to play in class). Simply put, Carl took no ownership of his work. Naturally, his grade struggled. A week prior to this phone call, I spoke to his father about giving Carl some makeup work. I gave Carl the work.
Now a week later, here I was on the phone again with his dad, notifying him of Carl’s possible failure in my class. His dad asked if there was any work Carl could do to get his grade up. First, this is a great question FOR THE STUDENT TO ASK PRIOR TO THE WEEK BEFORE SCHOOL IS OUT. Second, the answer was “yes,” and he had already received it. Though these were my feelings, I simply told his dad I had already given the work to Carl but had yet to get it back. --PAY ATTENTION-- His dad then proceeded to tell me to take the same work I had just given to Carl down to the office for him (dad) to pick up for Carl. He specifically said, “Please don’t give it to Carl, I will pick it up.” WTF?? Are you kidding me?? So, hold up, I am supposed to regather the work and take it down the office even though I had just done this? I had just finished desperately working to pick a student up from tears, a student who defines hard work and focus, a student who I literally have no power in helping, a student who is willing to put in the work, to put her head down and focus but is just out of luck in this situation, yet, I am supposed to be like, “Oh, Carl needs the same packet again even though he decided not to do it in class? Even though he again decided not to do it at home? I am supposed to reinforce the problem by not letting Carl experience the consequence of choice?” Give. Me. A. Break.
I am not the parent. I am the teacher. If I can, I accommodate the parent request. I don’t tell you what to feed your child, how to discipline your child, or how to let your child experience life. But, regardless of these three truths, I need parents to realize that it’s necessary to let your child fail. Read it again: It. Is. Necessary. To. Let. Your. Child. Fail.
The actual phone call with Carl’s dad isn’t what angers me. What angers me is witnessing the reinforcement of a massive societal problem: people, young and old, not willing to accept the consequences of their actions. People not willing to fix their mistake, knowing how to right their wrongs, and not capable of handling a tough situation. So, here are some ideas for us all to consider:
Let your child fall—they will learn to pick themselves up.
Let them experience getting burned—they will learn how to handle pain.
Let your child get betrayed—they will learn to choose their relationships wisely.
Let them get a scraped knee—they will carefully navigate their next steps.
Let them experience losing—regardless of what 2016 says, life has winners and losers.
Let your child fail a class—next year they will consider putting forth more effort.
I realize that there are some students who have to deal with circumstances outside of the classroom that makes their life inside the classroom difficult. But even for them, their environment isn’t an excuse. Some of the toughest, most successful students I know come from situations I can’t even make up.
Parents, you might think you’re doing your child a favor by jumping out of your chair at every misstep. You might get the urge to say, “But that’s my baby.” Right, and they will be a 30 year old baby if you keep saying that. Do not enable excuses, empower their execution. Be a part of your child’s progress, not a part of their problem.
I was recently reading an article from the Huffington Post which reported that nearly 7% of Americans are clinically depressed. I have loved ones in that population. I desperately hope this 7% get the support they need and the help they deserve. Now, there are two ways to look at this: first, we can explicitly say that 7% of Americans have a reason to not be happy. Their brain literally functions in such a way that happiness is more difficult, if even possible, to attain. The other way I look at this is to say that 93% of Americans do not have a medical reason to not be happy. If 9 out of 10 people in the US do not have a reason to be unhappy, why is it that only 1 out of 3 report to be very happy? This is staggering, but I am not completely surprised.
As somebody who speaks to and interacts with many different groups, I have found a common thread among the happy. The happiest people don’t focus on being happy per se. The happiest people are those who focus on three key aspects. If you find that you’re having bad days more than you’d like, please consider these three points.
1. Perspective. Back in the day, ships had something called the crow’s nest attached near the top of a mast (the large pole the sail was attached to). From the crow’s nest, a designated shipman was able to see things from a better perspective than the hands on deck. From this vantage point, he was better able to see oncoming ships, he had a clearer perspective of the waters ahead, and he was typically the first to see land. You see, most unhappy people are unhappy because of a poor perspective. They’re looking at life and its struggles from the deck, or even worse, below the deck! What you must do is get into the crow’s nest of your own life. That way, when you’re in troubled waters, or you feel like land is nowhere to be found, you can look at your situation from a better perspective. If you fail to see things differently, you will fail to feel differently. This first step is critical to follow.
2. Action. “If you’re livin’ then find out your purpose and make it do what it do. Still, coulda, woulda, shoulda are the last words of a fool.” – Tobe Nwigwe, Been Grindin. If your perspective is right, and your mind is in the right place but you’re still not happy, you need to honestly evaluate what action steps you’re taking. The key is making sure you are working towards something of value. You must be involved in something bigger than yourself. Why are you at your current job? What is it that keeps you there? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day? The answers to these questions are necessary to identify. You can’t have the right attitude if you’ve got the wrong answers to these questions. Bottom line is this- be working to make somebody else’s life better, and in turn you can’t help but feel better. This will always be so.
3. Relationships. I always tell people, “You can’t stay dry in a pool.” People complain about being cold and wet while they’re hanging out in the pool! Your environment has an effect on you, always. So if perspective is set and you’re involved in your fulfilling work, but you’re not still not happy, you better check your relationships. In the same way that it is impossible to stay dry in a pool, you cannot be positive and happy when you’re surrounded by negative people. This might require you to cut some ties with certain people, but listen, you don’t owe anybody your presence if they’re going to bring you down.
I don’t promise a truck-load of money by following these three points, but I can promise you happiness, and that beats the hell out of money any day.
We all have a story of personal development. Whether we know it or not, we are all always developing. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse, but it is definitely happening. Due to the fact that I have made a lot of mistakes, my personal story has a lot of lessons in it. I want to share one specific one that I hope can add some value to your life. It’s about taking action.
From 2005 to 2007 I lived in Hawaii working for my church. While living on Big Island, I met a man named Frank Burgess. He wasn’t a member of our church, but he liked discussing ideas with us. So we would schedule weekly visits at his house. They always went well. He was very easy to talk to, warm, and just an even-keeled mainlander who found a comfortable life among the beautiful people in the beautiful islands.
One day we were talking about how we all have areas where we can improve. Some of us need more patience, some of us need more ambition, and really we all have something we can work on. Frank told us that he had some CDs that have really helped him out. He copied them for me, and I put them in my suitcase for the remainder of my stay in Hawaii. I honestly didn’t have much intention of listening to them, but I felt bad throwing away 24 CDs that were given to me. So, when I got home from Hawaii, I put them in the glove box of my car and they sat there as I started school and focused on work.
A few months into my first semester, I planned a weekend road trip from Phoenix, Arizona up to Salt Lake City, Utah to see a good friend. Being a 10-hour drive, I had a lot of time to myself. I remembered that I had put the CDs in my glove box, and recalling how adamant Frank was about listening to them, I finally admitted that I had nothing to lose, so I put in the first CD. I didn’t really know what I was about to listen to, all I knew was that it was a recording of some 3-day seminar in Anaheim where a bunch of people talked about leadership…and stuff.
The first speaker was Jim Rohn, a guy I had never heard of. He speaks easily, but powerfully. For the next nine and a half hours I was hooked on those CDs. I will spare you the specific details of everything I heard because the point of this post is not the content of that seminar, but the topics presented covered everything from confidence, to personal philosophy, to honest individual evaluation. That 10-hour drive changed the course of my life. I heard simple truths that completely shifted my paradigm of thinking:
“Through testimonials and personal experience, we have enough information to conclude that it’s possible to design and live an extraordinary life.”
”For things to change for you, you have to change.”
“Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.”
“You’re as good as the best, no better than the rest.”
Now, fast forward a few years, circa 2011, I thought to myself, “I am loving the arena of personal development, it has given me more confidence than I was born with, I have a clearer idea of what my personal success looks like, and I owe this all to Frank Burgess.” Had he never given me those CDs, who knows, Maybe I would have never been introduced. So I told myself I was going to reach out to him. I tried looking him up on Facebook but couldn’t find him. So a few more years went by. I thought about contacting some of my colleagues from the church to ask if they have touched base with him, but I never called them. I kept telling myself that I owed it to Frank to let him know how much his simple act changed my life.
One evening about five weeks ago, early April 2016, he popped into my head again. So I went back to Google, typed in “Frank Burgess Kona Hawaii.” A Facebook profile popped up for a Frank Burgess in Kailua-Kona. It was him! I was ecstatic. Finally, I could let him know what he deserved to know. So I clicked.
Naturally I scrolled through his timeline to see what he was up to, but immediately my heart sank. I saw messages like “Have a great day in the white light,” “Glad to have known you here on Earth,” “Happy Birthday in heaven!” Frank had just passed away in the fall of 2015. As I sit here typing this, two emotions resurface: sadness and anger. I am sad that Frank will never know the impact he had on my life and I am absolutely angry at myself for waiting! For OVER EIGHT YEARS I have been wanting to contact Frank! For OVER EIGHT YEARS I kept telling myself I’d do it! But I waited. I did not follow through with something that I whole-heartedly believe in: taking action.
I do not believe in regret, but I do believe in lasting lessons. This is a lesson that will not soon go away. Frank was a great man, a brilliant man, and a man I can say impacted my life in a wonderful way.
My experience in this situation has further reinforced the idea that we cannot wait to do something! Don’t put something off because you’re tired, don’t hesitate to move on an idea because every detail isn’t ironed out, and absolutely don’t hesitate to tell somebody that you care about them, or that they helped you, or that you simply appreciate them. Sharing that is a blessing to people. We ourselves love to hear how we have helped somebody else, why would we wait to give somebody that same gift? So whether it’s a business idea, an apology that needs to happen, or an application that needs to be submitted, don’t wait! I waited so long to do something that the window of opportunity closed.
Lesson: Seize your opportunities. One day, your last opportunity will have come and gone.
Early yesterday (5/10/2016) morning I was woken up by my sister’s phone call to tell me that our uncle had unexpectedly passed away. My thoughts immediately went to his beautiful wife, then to their children, then to their grandchildren. They have lost a great man, the world has. I’d argue that the most pure time to contemplate life and what you’re doing with yours, is right after a death. It’s the most honest time to ask some tough questions.
Not too long ago I was sitting with my sister and brother-in-law in their living room. My wife and my mother were there as well. Sometimes I like to throw out questions just to see how people will respond. This particular night, I asked, “What will you have to do to be content at the end of your life?” So, I ask you reading this, in order to die happy, what will you have to do to reach that point? If you don’t know the answer to this, I highly suggest you immediately consider this then work to get it done. Regret is a harsh last thought that no human should experience.
I bring this up because I believe my uncle to be somebody who lived a full life. Some people live 100 years and don’t give anything to the world, while some people live less than 30 but can help change it for the better. My uncle wasn’t given 100 years, but with the time he was given, he lived. He was a man of his faith, and unconditionally so. He was a man who loved his family, keeping in mind that love is a verb. He was a man with a laugh that, regardless of your mood, would make you smile inside and out. It was a paced, rolling, contagious laugh-I can hear it now. He was warm, friendly, and looked you in your eyes when you were speaking with him. My personal experience with him was that he was able to accept others while still being an unwavering representative of his beliefs. This is a standard very few get to.
I share all of this to say that I believe I have met a man who can answer my question with certainty and say that he is content. I call him Uncle Jeff. He and his wife built a life of family, consistency, and service. The passing of Uncle Jeff makes me revisit that question myself, and I hope you ask it too. How do we get to that wonderful place where he was? What are you going to do today that if you were taken tomorrow, you could look at the world and say, “I was a factor.” Uncle Jeff was a factor, a wonderful one. No human can influence as many lives as he did and ever truly die.
Go be a factor.