The limits we put on ourselves

What we think is a ’10/10 effort’ … isn’t.

It sounds cliche but most of our students limitations are put there by the student his/herself or their upbringing. I learned this during my first years of teaching at an inner city charter school. We were the “Road to College” but the kids didn’t seem to believe that they would ever go to college. Kids wouldn’t say things like “I want to be a _____.” It was always “I don’t know.” These were kids, there is no reason they couldn’t aspire to any career. The problem was that they didn’t know anyone who went on to further their education after high school. We would encourage and talk about our own experiences. I truly hope that they exceeded their expectations. These kids didn’t have limits, they could do anything. They’re limits were in their own heads.

Everyone does this to themselves, both mentally and physically.

The example that I share with my students

My example of this was from boot camp. The final ruck march was all night long. It came after a whole week of field exercises and sleeping in our foxholes. Our exhaustion was total and the march was 16 miles long. I doubted myself about five miles in. At eight or nine miles in, I was questioning every decision that I had made that had put me in that position. I couldn’t imagine making it the whole way.

If you had asked me what my physical limit was at that point, I would have said 10 or 12 miles. At that moment, I thought I would fail to get there. All I could do was focus on the farthest away point and force myself to that point. Over and over again I did this. Everything we had been through training was behind us and this was literally the last thing we had to do. No one was going to give up. Near the end, when we didn’t know how much further and was pitch dark, it was about taking one more step, over and over again.

In the end, we did the long march. Approaching the field where everyone waited was a strange moment. We had new energy and a sense of joy for having finished.

At 5am that morning, I was given my blue cord at a bonfire ceremony. The mile walk back to the barracks hurt but didn’t matter. We were done.

What I thought I could do and what I could really do was not the same thing. We treat the limits that we imagine over ourselves as true, actual limits. It takes something or someone to push you past that ‘limit’ before you realize that it wasn’t really there. We can do so much more than we imagine that we can.

As a teacher…

I ask students to rate their effort in school. Usually, kids reply with a 7, 8, or 9. Sometimes someone will offer a 10. I don’t tell them this but I most appreciate the kids who say anything less than six but aren’t trying to be glib. After they share or hold up their numbers, I tell them the above story. What I thought was a 10 wouldn’t have gotten me to the finish of that march. What I thought was a 10/10 effort, was more like a 7.

This is the lesson: what students think is a 10, isn’t.

Back to the lesson. Next, I ask the students who said eight or higher:

“Are you asking questions every time you are confused in class? Are you making sure that you understand every concept taught in class? Do you watch youtube videos to help you understand your homework a little bit better? Are you quizzing yourself on your notes? Do you take the time to finish a project the very best that you can?

What you are imagining as a ‘10’ is not really a ‘10’, its probably just spending a little more time each day on your class work. You can do so much better.”

Next, I ask them to reevaluate their ‘effort at school.’ Most numbers drop significantly. A few usually stay high but most are between 2 and 5. It is one of my absolute favorite conversations to have in the classroom.

Our System

Kids are smart at figuring our system out; it is too bad our system expects so little. In the end, the heart of Puzzle Shift Create is pushing kids into these frank conversations and honestly assessing ourselves.

I do this activity to help kids think differently about the work we do in Innovative Arts. If they only give the effort while they are investing in themselves, they’ll have minimal results. If they are going to really launch themselves into something new, they need to break away from the habits of thinking they may have fallen into.

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