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Perspective | For students to believe they can do hard things, we have to model it

When the superintendent of my district called to say that I’d been invited to fly with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels over the nearby Cherry Point Marine base, I told her I’d have to think about it. I don’t like roller coasters, am prone to motion sickness, and going up in an F/A-18 terrified me.

But then I talked to my family and realized I had to say yes. I tell my students all the time that they can do hard things. Would my kids continue to believe me if I said no to the offer to fly with the Blue Angels? 

That haunted me, which was how I found myself pulling Gs with Blue Angel #7, Lieutenant Conner O’Donnell, over coastal North Carolina a few weeks ago. I’m so glad I took that ride of a lifetime. But the best feeling came when I returned to my classroom and heard, “Ms. Routten, you did it!”

I admitted I was a little afraid, something we adults don’t own up to very often. But it’s so important for children to see us face our fears and overcome them. The impact saying “yes” had on my students was clear.

A few days after my flight, one student came up to me with a huge smile and said, ‘Ms. Routten, I took a chance last night. I was at my baseball game and a travel ball coach wants me on his All Star team. I didn’t think I was somebody who could do that, but then I remembered what we talked about. If you can ride with the Blue Angels, I can try to do this.”  

Facing your fears doesn’t have to mean getting in a fighter jet or trying out for a highly competitive team; it might mean doing something as simple as reading aloud in class or explaining how you solved a math problem to a partner. Or, maybe it means telling your partner you don’t understand the problem.

I’ve seen a lot of growth in my students when it comes to naming their fears and overcoming them. This year, for example, we participated in “Battle of the Books,” in which students had to read a list of books over seven months. At first, many said they didn’t want to do it, because the books seemed way too hard. Well, by the end of the competition, my class had the highest percentage of students participating, and 100% of my participating students read every book on the list. 

Speaking and presenting is also a core part of what we do. This year, I had one student who was so shy, more so than any student I’ve had in my 26 years of teaching. At the beginning of the year, she just couldn’t present what she learned to the class. But I worked with her, and by the middle of the year, she agreed to present a slide presentation on animal adaptations with a partner. At the end of the year, she led a discussion and presentation on how to be safe around electricity.

For educators working with students on getting over their fears, tackling challenging content, and developing a growth mindset, here are some strategies that have worked for me.

Tell them a story.

Even before I flew with the Blue Angels, my students knew I’d overcome other fears to meet a goal. For example, I’m on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card, and several of my students have asked what I do during our board meetings. I’ve explained that I meet with governors, lawmakers, business leaders, and others to discuss education issues. A few wanted to know if I was afraid to speak in front of people like that. I told them at first I was but then realized they’re people, just like me, and they value what I have to say.

Look for lessons in books.

I routinely assign or read aloud books that feature stories about characters overcoming their fears. Some examples include:

  • “Fish in a Tree,” by Linda Mullaly Hunt, about a girl with dyslexia who learns to overcome her fear of being seen as different and asking for help.
  • “The Hope Chest,” by Karen Schwabach, about a girl who sets out to find her missing sister and along the way joins the fight for women’s voting rights.
  • “Through My Eyes,” by Ruby Bridges. Ruby was the first African American child who attended an all-white school in Louisiana. This is a great story to teach perseverance, bravery and overcoming obstacles (including fear).

Small steps can lead to big changes.

As a shy kid myself, I can relate to students who have trouble speaking in front of the class. Strategies I’ve used to help students include pairing up kids, letting students give a presentation from their desk, or letting them give their presentation while at my desk. Each provides security and familiarity, or a safe space for students to share their thoughts and ideas. The goal is to eventually have them stand up on their own in front of the class, but these strategies can work along the way.

Make it OK to make mistakes.

So many children are afraid of making mistakes in school. One of my favorite short videos to show the kids is a video of Michael Jordan explaining how all the times he missed a shot or made a mistake on the court were opportunities to learn. Here in North Carolina, what Jordan says really sinks in!

I’ve found this idea of normalizing, and even celebrating, mistakes to be particularly important in math, a subject that instills fear in far too many students. Math is foundational, and concepts build upon one another. So, if you miss a step or an idea, it can have a snowball effect, which can be scary. I try to tackle that by making sure my students have a deep conceptual understanding of math rather than only relying on memorization. For example, we use objects, or math manipulatives, to understand topics like fractions in a concrete way. That helps kids approach problems with confidence. When my students do make mistakes, you might find even them high-fiving each other if that leads to a rich discussion and deeper understanding.

As I was packing up my classroom for summer recess, I picked up my signed Blue Angels picture. I was going to bring it home, but then thought, “Why not leave it at school to display in my classroom on the first day of the 2024-2025 school year?” I’m hopeful it will be a catalyst to many conversations about taking chances and overcoming fear.

Nardi Routten

Nardi Routten teaches fourth grade at Creekside Elementary School in New Bern. She was recently named teacher of the year for Craven County and the southeast region of North Carolina. She serves as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card.