Believe in Someone
“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”
The transition to the new school had been tough for the young boy, not just because of the change from a school where disputes were settled with fists to one where words were preferred, but because of the sudden and overwhelming focus on academic results.
Results spoke even louder than words. Results were revealed for all to see. Students were graded in the minutiae, a list produced in order of performance and then posted on the noticeboard.
In such an environment the boy felt overwhelmed and was quickly placed into a box by the teachers called ‘average’. As an average student he gave average effort and reports during the year more often than not read ‘could try harder’. But why? He was average, his results were average, and so his expectation of self was average.
His main focus was survival. His worst nightmare was Maths, not just because of the maths itself, but because of the maths teacher, a gruff ex military type who chain smoked between classes in the staff common room and who delighted in taunting the boy with a rhyming criticism of his work.
At the completion of his first year at the school the boy was relieved – his results average, his effort average, his expectations of himself average. The long summer holidays gave him ample time to form stronger bonds with his new class mates and to reassess his view of himself. A new year, he told himself, a new teacher, a chance to begin again. But his enthusiasm deflated when on the first day of the new school year he found out that he was to have the same gruff maths teacher – the only difference to the previous year was that now he was not alone, now he had friends who encouraged him to ignore the taunts of the teacher and just get on with things instead.
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Martin Luther King Jnr.
Arriving at class for Maths the boy’s stomach was full of butterflies, he walked in with his head down trying to avoid the gaze of the teacher and it was only when he had found his desk and sat down that he looked up. The gruff, heavily built teacher had shrunk, his face was drawn and gaunt and he now sported a moustache. When he began to teach, his demeanour had changed, the taunting had gone replaced by a more present and caring manner. But still the boy was wary, survival remained his primary goal.
After class and for days afterwards the students gossiped – What had happened to the Maths teacher? What was the story behind the moustache? Why was the teacher fervently chewing gum at every opportunity? Slowly a consensus emerged – cancer caused from smoking it said.
At the mid-term test the boy arrived for the Maths test with his usual trepidation but once the paper was turned over he was surprised to find that if he was calm he could carefully think his way through the problems and solve them.
In the following days he forgot about the test and it was only when walking back from Chapel that the unexpected appearance of the Maths teacher caused his stomach to begin somersaults. The boy tried to avoid the teacher’s gaze but to no avail, he was pulled out of line and taken to one side.
Staring at the ground he shifted nervously from foot to foot.
“How do you think you went in that test?” the teacher asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy mumbled.
“Did you try?” the teacher asked.
“Look,” the teacher demanded.
The boy slowly looked up, not knowing what to expect. The teacher was holding up a test paper, his test paper. Written on the front in red was ‘97/100 Excellent work!’ The boy was speechless.
“Yours was the highest mark for the whole year,” the teacher said pausing, “This is what I believe you should be getting every test. This is the standard I believe you are capable of.” he paused again, “If, you try.”
The teacher handed the boy the test and walked away. In the next lot of tests the boy was in the top three students in his year. His story about himself shifted and for the rest of his school life he remained right at the top of his year – all because one man believed in him.
It’s easy to be critical, to justify your position by saying “I’m just trying to set a high standard” or something like that but does that really help in the long run. There is amazing research that has been done showing what happens when grade school teachers are told at the start of the year whether or not their students are high achievers or not. Teachers who have been told their students are high achievers (even if they are not) have a different level of expectation of the students and, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, the results reflect this.
Ask most successful people who contributed to their success and you will find more stories of people who believed in them – often more than they believed in themselves. The lesson is this – put simply the past is the past but it has a momentum hangover that flows into the present in the form of a life narrative or story. If you believe the past story then your expectations of a person will reflect this and your perceptual biases will filter out information that doesn’t fit the story. But – if you look for the highest potential of a person and hold that space for them – believing in what they are capable of – and then – look for information to support this story – not only do you provide the other person with an opportunity to be all that they can be, you also free yourself from the heavy burden of the past and allow yourself to dream.
In peace and love always.