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More Than Just a Curriculum

“I don’t even know what changed but I used to feel like I didn’t want to be myself, and I was ashamed of myself all the time. But I don’t feel that way anymore, I am happy to be myself, I feel valuable and I just feel good about myself. This year I learned that the more I was myself when I was speaking the better I did, which was surprising to me because when I started I thought the opposite was true. I realized that what I have to say is important, worth hearing, and even though I’m not the most eloquent speaker I am actually not bad. It’s kind of funny how this whole time you have been teaching speech and debate and I ended up learning about myself.”

Each year I have students reflect on their experiences at semester and at the end of the year by writing a “semester reflection”. The reflection has students write a paper that answers questions like, “What challenges have you had to overcome to be successful?”, “What have you learned about yourself this semester?”, “What grade would you give yourself and why?”, and “What is the most important thing you learned about speech and debate this semester?” This is a research backed approach given that self reported grades and self judgement and reflection are both rated as teaching strategies with “potential to considerably accelerate” in John Hattie’s Visible Learning dataset. They are also central to the teaching philosophy in the Wasatch Independent Debate League: if students are to learn and grow in a sustainable fashion they must confront embedded irrational beliefs and behaviors that keep them from investing in their education and taking the necessary risks to grow.

I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to read the reflection from the student above. I had spent years taking active measures to convince her that she was a person worth respecting, that any given failure did not have relevance to her value as a student and human, and that it was safe for her to take the sort of risks that she ended up taking in that final year of debate. To see those words voluntarily typed by her is the sort of thing you work for endlessly as a teacher and just hope that you will one day read. Of course, you can imagine the irony in reading “It’s kind of funny how this whole time you have been teaching speech and debate and I ended up learning about myself.” In fact, I had spent the whole time very much trying to teach her about herself.

“Speech and Debate has a misleading title. It should be Speech, Debate, and Respect. I learned about respect. I learned to respect every competitor. I learned to respect the competitor who did better than me and the competitor who didn’t place as well as me. I learned to respect people who had been in the league for 5+ years and those who were brand new to the league. I learned to respect competitors in LD and competitors in Spar. EVERYONE. I saw them as people. Not as placings. Not as years of experience. Not as events. But as real people who were doing their best and that was enough and it never mattered where I placed or where they placed. Medals might as well be made of dirt for all it mattered. Everyone was entitled to that respect. That was a very moving thing for me.”

Students carry all sorts of irrational beliefs and behaviors around with them that keep them from flourishing as students and people. Here is a sample of beliefs that I have run across during my time teaching-

  • “I have to perform better than those around me to be liked or respected. There is only so much respect and love to go around and if someone else gets some, there is less left in the pot for me. I have to compete with other students to be loved and respected”

  • “If I do my best, then maybe it won’t be enough. Better to not find out what my best looks like and maintain the possibility that I’m great than to rule it out for sure.”

  • “If I do my best then people will begin to expect me to perform to that same level every time. I know I’ll fail them and myself. Better to let them think that I’m shallow and stupid. They already do and what harm has it done me?”

  • “If I can just work harder and do better at this tournament, I can finally have permission to like myself. I know that hasn’t worked up to this point, but his time will be different. This time I’ll win and I’ll be worth liking”

  • If I decide to care about this class, then I lose my excuse when I fail. As long as I don’t care, I don’t have to be hurt when I don’t measure up. How can you be hurt by something you don’t care about?”

  • I didn’t choose to not complete my homework. It has to not be my fault. If it’s my fault I’m a bad student and a bad person. So it was my schedule, my parents, my teacher, or anything. Anything but me.”

  • I need people to see me and pay attention to me, because if they don't, how do I know if I’m accepted? Anytime that people aren’t paying attention, it’s a sign that I don’t belong.

You can usually only get students to say these things out loud if you build up a lot of trust and ask the right questions in the right moments, so you generally see these beliefs in students’ actions before you hear them say them with words. In other words, you generally get to see these beliefs because students behave as if they are true. It can take time to spot, but if you look closely you’ll find that irrational behaviors follow irrational beliefs. Do you have a student that accomplishes success after success and still talks poorly about him/herself? Do you have a student who is paralyzed by even small risks? Do you have a student who engages in inappropriate attention seeking? Do you have a student who has to one up his or her classmates? Do you have students who in some way engage in baffling behaviors that are damaging to their growth? If so, don’t pass it off as just a part of their personalities. Instead pay attention. Take an interest in those students. Try to understand them. Try to understand the beliefs that drive those behaviors. If you really want your students to grow, you can’t just be interested in your curriculum, you also have to have an interest in your students’ internal lives.

“The hardest challenge was learning how to trust myself and believe in myself. It's always been easy for me to see potential in those around me but hard for me to see it in myself. Something one of the judges told me has stuck with me, (paraphrasing) she said, “You need to trust yourself more, I can tell you’ve done the research and prepared. You just need to believe that you can do it.” She was the first to ever verbalize my insecurity, one that I thought I hid well, it made me realize how much she was right not only in this case but in many aspects of my life. Time after time I have not given something a try because I didn’t believe I could do it......My comfortable little bubble has popped and I don’t plan on making a new one.”

If, as a teacher, you want to make a long term impact on students, you have to be prepared to discover, understand, and challenge your students’ irrational beliefs. Though each circumstance in which you do this will likely differ, I would like to put forward a basic framework you can use to challenge students to see the world more rationally. The method can be thought of as a “V” shape and goes in these steps.

  • Identify with the student the behavior that concerns you.

  • Ask questions about why the student engages in the behavior.

  • Identify with the student the belief(s) that drive the behavior.

  • Ask the student whether or not they agree with the belief.

  • Identify a rational replacement for the previously held belief.

  • Ask questions about how the new belief would affect behavior.

  • Identify a new behavior that comports with the new belief.

In a practical application it would look something like this-

  • It appears that giving this speech is causing you some distress. Am I right about that?

  • What is it that is distressing about giving the speech? How do you feel when you are giving the speech? Why do you think you feel that way? etc.

  • It sounds to me like you are saying that you are dumb because you can’t speak as long as some of the other students. Am I right about that?

  • I have a question for you: do you really think that you are dumb if you can’t speak as long as other students? How do you think it makes the most sense to measure yourself in this circumstance? If you had a friend in your position, would you think that they are dumb? Why not?

  • So can we agree then, that the most important way to measure yourself here is by your willingness to try to get better? Can you be pleased with yourself for trying hard even if you can’t speak as long as every other student every time?

  • So, we’ve established that your speech doesn’t have to be any particular length and that the most important issue is that you try your best. So what do you think you should do if you start to feel anxious or like you are failing?

  • If I’m hearing you correctly, it sounds like you are going to give this speech your best even if it gets scary and then you will be willing to judge yourself based on whether or not you gave your best effort. Is that right?

Sometimes these conversations take a few minutes, sometimes longer, and sometimes they are spread out over a series of weeks or even months. Sometimes they happen with a single student, but frequently I talk about general problems with whole classes very regularly. Sometimes they have a big impact, and sometimes they leave a student with something to think about for the future. But overall, for the student in need of intervention and ready to make a change, making that intervention as a teacher can be absolutely key to helping students succeed in your class. And it can be so rewarding to see a student change behaviors, act more confidently, and begin to take the sort of risks that spur growth.

Teaching isn’t for people who want to teach math or science or speech and debate. It is for people who want to teach kids.


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