Tutor Asks, "How Can We Encourage Students to Persist Through Challenges?"

As a private tutor and test prep coach, I often get to “circle back” to recurring problems with students week after week. As a blogger, though, it seems that novelty is often what’s required.  But, this week, life gave me the perfect fodder for a coda to last week’s post on failure.

Remember that Bronx Community College student from last week who “f[oun]d [her]self struggling on…quizzes a lot more than…expected”?  The one who confided that “the low grades are bringing down my confidence…[and] making me feel like I should drop the class”?

I was so pleased and proud when she reached out for help in the next sentence.  We had a great tutor session before the next class: she understood her (very few) weaknesses, I praised the rest of her strong writing, and we even bonded over our shared love of organized notebooks (see photo below; it even has rainbow-colored post-its and multiple sleeves for handouts inside!).  She seemed happy and relieved when we left the tutor session and went into class.

I derive no compensation from recommending this product!

I derive no compensation from recommending this product!

Rejecting Resolve

So, imagine my surprise Monday morning when I took a look at my roster online and saw that this student had dropped the class – without a word or a question.  As a tutor, I was saddened that I’d evidently not connected with her as profoundly as I’d thought.  As a teacher, though, I was even more disappointed: she participated often in class, and our future discussions wouldn’t be the same without her insight.

I took a moment to jot a quick email:

“Dear Jane (not her real name),

I see you withdrew from the class. Why?

You have great potential, but in your academic career, there will be many challenges.... Don't give up so easily!

Dr. P.

“Jane” had revealed on the first day of class that she wanted to graduate from the two-year institution where I teach, go on to a four-year school, and eventually get a Ph.D.  As someone who’s earned those degrees (and then some!), I knew from experience that struggling with writing topic sentences as a freshman would be only the first of many challenges that she – even a “good,” “strong” student – would face in the long academic career ahead of her.

I’m sad to report, dear Reader, that this was her reply to my email:

Dear Dr P.,

 .…. Personally, I understand that you wish to express your disappointment. However, to suggest there “will” be academic challenges for me in the future I find a tad condescending and patronizing….


Photo by @vegasphotog on Unsplash

Photo by @vegasphotog on Unsplash

A Future Free of Challenge?

Hmmmmm.  I’m sensitive to the fact that I’m white and Jane is a student of color.  There’s a long history of white teachers diminishing the abilities of students of color.  

Nevertheless, I would’ve encouraged any student (and especially one with as much potential as Jane!) to persist because all of us experience setbacks in all of life’s arena at one time or anotherJane’s sentence finding the mere allusion to future challenges “condescending” suggests that somewhere along the line, she’s absorbed the lesson that her future will be challenge-free.  That would be beautiful, but of course, it’s completely unrealistic, even for a student with the highest of IQs.

I wonder where she imbibed that lesson?  Home? School?  A combination of the two?  This brief email from Jane set off a chain of other, more important questions in my brain….

·     In our well-intentioned desire to bolster our children’s confidence, are we teaching them that they will never encounter setbacks? 

·     Are we showing them that the best course of action is to retreat entirely from a setback and, instead, find a path without challenge?

·     And, most importantly, how can we as adults turn the insane position that we – teachers, tutors, parents, and young people – are currently in with regard to our children’s fear of failure and rejection of resolve?

Do YOU have any answers, especially to the last question above?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section of my blog (to receive the latest issue delivered straight to your inbox each Thursday, click here).  

If YOU have a different question that you would like answered and you’re unable to make it to a library talk (such as the one in the video above) or workshop,email me.  I’ll be sure to respond and your concern might even make its way into future blog posts or my next Facebook Live on March 27 at 1:30pm.  (Day and time changed this month due to a prior commitment on the last Thursday at 7.)  It’ll be like having your own tutor in your living room! 

Until then, see you on Facebookand Instagram!

Dr. P.

 p.s. In case you thought I forgot about the Varsity Blues case, I did not!  Next week’s blog will be ALL about linking the case to – what else – students’ and parents’ acceptance (or inability to accept) failure.