Magazine Feature

Countering the Narrative

How to turn “I’m not good at this” into “I’m not good at this—yet!”
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Illustration by Mike Austin

What’s your story? 

As a middle school English teacher, sometimes I wished I could have simply asked my students that question. I know well how the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves shape what we believe we can and cannot do.

Instead, it’s been my job as a teacher to pick up on the little clues they have dropped day in and day out. As the best storytellers do, they have shown me their stories, giving glimpses of their backgrounds and beliefs. And those beliefs—their narratives—have a profound influence on whether or not they think they can succeed, whether or not they perceive education as a springboard or cinder block. The better I understand the narratives at work in their lives, the better position I’m in to help students—especially disengaged students—develop counternarratives to stories that may be holding them back.

We teachers have our narratives, too, whether or not we think of them as such. We carry personal myths about where we came from and how we got here. We may share internalized tales of feeling misunderstood and disenfranchised. We may perceive our school communities as allies or obstacles. There are realities, sure, but stories also have power to create reality.

I know I have my story, and it definitely has colored how I have approached teaching. Here are the bare bones. My family was working class. I was a high school dropout. I earned a GED and went to college. I became a teacher. For me, my personal narrative of self-doubt and struggle has synthesized with a counternarrative of overcoming obstacles, of opposition that led to transformation.

What follows are examples of three narratives that commonly unfold in classrooms. They are followed by possible counternarratives, shifts in perception that we can teach and, more importantly, model for our students. Counternarratives offer opportunities for us—students and teachers alike—to not just accept the stories the world tells us, but to practice becoming the authors of what comes next.


Narrative #1: “I’m Not Good at This”

I proctor multiple assessments each year, and the ramping up of high-stakes testing has put fear of failure front-and-center in many students’ minds—and teachers and administrators, too. In some classrooms, student scores are even posted on the wall to foster competition. These assessments are all well and good for kids who excel at test-taking, but can be torture chambers for those who don’t. Competition may be celebrated in our culture, but in schools it creates a dynamic where identifying clear winners and losers can bend and break young spirits.

Even if the results are not so publicly displayed, kids quickly figure out where they sit in the pecking order. I clearly remember my own experience as a third-grader. I was pulled out of class for reading remediation. Though no adult ever told me, I recognized that I was receiving extra instruction compared to the rest of my classmates. No special category or document was needed. In my mind—my own narrative—I was not just failing; I was a failure.

An emphasis on competitiveness has kids pigeonholing their academic abilities before they reach adolescence. The labels land and stick—smart, average, special needs—and the labels evolve into narratives about their identity. I have had students introduce themselves with confessions of failure even before giving their name: “Hi, I’m not good at reading. My name is Mary.”


The Counternarrative: “I’m Not Good at This ... Yet

The work of educational researchers Peter Johnston and Carol Dweck added a hopeful word to this narrative: YET. We can tack this on to any skill we’re struggling with: “I’m not as good at book reports as I’d like to be ... yet.” It is the essence of the growth mindset.

We need to understand and communicate that assessments are not absolute. Whatever the reliability and validity measures, standardized tests will always produce a scatter plot showing some students above, many in the middle and some below average—because that’s what average means and what standardized tests do. Too often we even forget that they are assessments—ways to assess where we’re at and how to adjust to get to where we want to go.

I have done my best to reassure students that giftedness and skill exist beyond the scope of any test score. I have had students assume that, because I teach English, I might not like or respect them if they do not care for books. They have actually found it reassuring when I tell them MY narrative: That there was a time when I had my own struggles with English. It took some time and effort for me to improve and reach a point where I actually enjoyed reading. When I was their age, I wasn’t good at reading ... YET.

Beyond that, though, I let them know that my care for them goes beyond their academic performance.


Narrative #2: “I’m Just Here So I Can Get a Job”

“I’m just going to do work and get a job,” more than one student has told me. It is a refrain, especially among students without much enthusiasm for formal learning. For many, maybe most students, going to school is primarily about one day making a living. They don’t make the connection between studying literature, contemplation, writing, critical thinking and what they’ll be when they grow up. And honestly, we haven’t always made a good case for the relevance of much of our coursework.

“If I’m going to be a cosmetologist, why do I need to learn this?” one student asked me my first year as a teacher. This is a fair question that deserves exploration, especially where education is viewed in terms of job training.


The Counternarrative: “I’m Here to Learn How to Learn”

Learning at its best is about exploration and critical reflection. Unfortunately, this tenet of education is more available to privileged students who are likely to have been exposed to more of life’s options. Their schools have more resources for bringing in guest authors, Skyping with scientists in Antarctica or taking field trips to the state capital to do a Q&A with a state representative.

In contrast, working-class kids and students in under-resourced communities may not get such experiences. They may be stuck with decades-old documentaries in the library and limited internet access. Classrooms may be full to bursting and personal relationships with teachers lacking. Instead of entering into project-based learning, they may be assigned worksheets and simple tasks. Their imaginations may have little exposure to a wider world of possibilities. Worse yet, they may be led to believe they don’t deserve to dream any bigger than what they see around them.

We all have our narratives, our stories about who we are and how the world works. Some of the narratives hold us back. Others remind us we are stronger than we may think.

As a high school junior, I did not know where I fit in the world, or what I wanted to pursue as a career. I really did not connect with any particular group of classmates. But there was one area that tickled my curiosity—the arts. What started as a budding interest in reading expanded into a love of learning that has now put me on a track to my Ph.D. I was the child of a laborer, and if teachers had not encouraged my interests and abilities, I do not know what path I would have followed.

So, what do I say to kids who may only see work/money through the keyhole view available to them? I share my story. I give them permission to dream. I tell them it’s cool to be a cosmetologist or any other work they find satisfying. I also tell them that the latest labor research suggests today’s young people will have 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime. Training for a specific vocation may get you that entry-level job. Pursuing an education that trains you how to think is the Swiss army knife of life. It will allow you to adapt to a world that changes, then changes again.

If they leave school having learned how to learn, they will have more control over their lives. That’s what I tell them.


Narrative #3: “I Don’t Know the Code”

When we walk into an unfamiliar social or cultural situation, our radar goes on high alert. Our minds must not just gather knowledge, but figure out “the code”—the relationships and communication norms of the people around us. This can be especially overwhelming for kids or youth coming from the nondominant culture and/or language. In addition, in school, there is the student-authority dynamic which is rife with pitfalls if the people involved don’t know the different codes at work. A joke that seems harmless to the teacher, for example, can be a slap in the face to a kid who feels singled out by it.

In many school settings, we expect students to know how or learn to “code switch,” adjusting rhetoric and behavior to the norms around them. However, they may come from a home situation or a home culture and language that does not easily integrate into our school norms. Code-switching is easier for some than for others, as well. For most of us, when we’re unfamiliar with the code in a situation, our first impulse may be to fall quiet and observe, or lose interest and check out. If we feel frightened or oppressed by the code, we may lash out.

In truth, most young people have an amazing capacity to code-switch. To me, it is the equivalent of being multilingual and worthy of respect.


The Counternarrative: “We Can Crack the Code ... Together”

Good relationships are the sine qua non of good teaching, more important than any other factor, in my opinion. If the two-way communication is effective, the chances of success of teaching and learning are on solid ground.

Many of us teach in diverse classrooms, and that likely means there are a whole bunch of codes being broadcast. It behooves us to assess what they are and game plan for how to create a common code—of conduct and communication—that we will share as a classroom.

Developing a shared classroom code can be taught collaboratively and explicitly. With student input, we can brainstorm and codify agreed-upon class norms: for example, how students signal when they want to ask a question (“Please raise your hand”); how to acknowledge they may be confused (“If you’re still unclear on the instructions, please meet me at my desk”); and how to focus class attention (“Everyone raise their hand until everyone is quiet”). Once we have agreed-upon codes of conduct, we start to transform into a team working together toward a common goal of learning. Mastering such a code also gives students a sense of control of their experience, and that contributes to greater confidence and self-control.

As teachers, we can also indicate our interest in learning and honoring our students’ codes. We do this by including a diversity of voices in the curriculum and daily discussion, and not just during Women’s History Month or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For example, without singling students out, we can model our genuine interest in Latin American literature and culture by including relevant texts in our curriculum and including examples of Frida Kahlo’s art alongside other artwork on classroom walls. In this way, we can show them—not just tell them—that we’re attentive to their codes and hearing their narratives.

And if there’s a disconnect? Something going on we just don’t get? We don’t need to guess or act out of the old-school playbook of classroom management. We can ask for our students’ help in cracking a code we don’t yet know.

We all have our narratives, our stories about who we are and how the world works. Some of the narratives hold us back. Others remind us we are stronger than we may think.

By replacing negative narratives with constructive counternarratives, we benefit our students and ourselves. We model ways to overcome challenges, work together to do better and honor what each of us brings to our classrooms and school communities. In doing so, we gradually shift the fear of what we can’t do to confidence in what we can.