I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
I’ve noted before that my word is resilience. My favorite word when teaching, though, is a different word. It’s not particularly melodious. It isn’t fraught with meaning. Almost any kindergartner can spell it. It’s a modest, seemingly unimportant word- except that when it comes to learning, it is the WHOLE BALLGAME.
The most powerful word I’ve come across in terms of teaching and learning is just three little letters. Yet. Yet is the silver bullet. Yet is the golden ticket- the whole enchilada.
I began teaching art in general ed classrooms. My daughter’s classrooms, to be specific. I started out as her Art Docent in kindergarten, and served in that capacity every year of her elementary school career. In the beginning, I had no earthly idea what I was doing. The kindergartners scared the bejeezus out of me. It was like herding cats. Feral cats hopped up on Red Bull. On more than one occasion I found myself in a flop sweat. SO MUCH ENTHUSIASM! SO LITTLE FOCUS! SOOOO many QUESTIONS!
Little people either over the moon about their efforts, or undone with frustration. It was… a LOT. I wish I could go back and re-teach that year, knowing what I know now. I spent a lot of time cheering, “You can do it!” It was really well intentioned. It’s also something I don’t say anymore. Ever.
I eventually took over the Art Docent program, and when I did I came to learn that the two special ed classrooms at our school didn’t have docents- and that it was not unusual for that to be the case. It makes a lot of sense, actually. Many of the kiddos lived out of district and were waivered in, or else their parents were stretched incredibly thin already- and we all know that taking on a recurring volunteer responsibility even without those additional stressors can be overwhelming. Having said that, it was not okay with me for their classes to go without the dedicated arts education every other kid at the school was getting, so I agreed to teach them in addition to my daughter’s class.
It is the single best gift I ever gave myself.
My first lessons were a lot like my first lessons in kindergarten. A lot of faking it, a lot of sweating. Two multi-age classrooms full of kids with different challenges and abilities. I was used to dealing with frustration in the context of art education. Children, as I’ve noted before, self identify early on as ‘good at’ or ‘not good at’ art based on their ability to successfully translate the idea in their imagination realistically onto the page. I’ve had sixth graders burst into angry tears over their inability to realize their vision for a piece they’re working on. When you add cognitive and behavioral struggles into the mix, it changes the whole dynamic of the lesson.
That was when it truly became about the process for me, and therefore, my students. That’s when I shifted my focus from results to experiences. That’s when I became a teacher rather than a project leader. That’s when I learned about the power of YET.
I had one little friend in my 1/2/3 class who would get so frustrated. The lessons just made him ANGRY. And every time I tried to encourage him, it only served to make things worse. He looked at me with tears in his eyes one day and said, I CAN’T do it. All of a sudden, things came into focus for me.
I knelt down beside him and said quietly, You’re right. He looked up at me in surprise. You can’t do it. But can you do me a favor? He muttered, What? I said, Can you add one word to that sentence? Can you add the word YET? Can you change it to, I can’t do it YET? He looked puzzled and a little annoyed.
I said, Can you tie your shoes?
Could you always tie your shoes?
Was is super hard to learn?
Buddy, you COULDN’T tie your shoes RIGHT UP UNTIL the first time you could. Before that, you COULD NOT DO IT. YET. So you are not going to be able to do this, RIGHT up until you CAN.
I know. It seems a little counter intuitive. But in my experience, You can’t do it YET. is a *far* more encouraging and effective statement than blithely chirping, You can do it!
You can’t do it acknowledges the child’s reality and their struggle. YET is about possibility. You can’t do it yet is both true and hopeful. It is about where the student IS, and also where they CAN be- where you have faith that they WILL be.
It holds immeasurable power in our adult lives, too. I know that when I am overwhelmed, I tend to shut down. If I can’t make the decisions, or the progress that I think I should be able to, I decide that it’s IMPOSSIBLE. That I CAN’T. That is not a good place to be. But add that one word.
I can’t find a job. Yet. I don’t know what my next step should be. Yet. I can’t get this toxic person out of my life. Yet. I can’t imagine my life without him or her. Yet. I can’t imagine ever loving again. Yet. I’m not ready to put my art out there. Yet.
I can’t forgive. Yet.
You don’t have to be able to do something. It’s okay not to be ready. Every single one of us has been on that journey. And as long as you acknowledge that, as long as you say, YET, you haven’t given up. You haven’t thrown in the towel. You are still in the process of *becoming*. Of getting ready. Of being, and doing. You’re just not there. Yet.