I remember the day vividly; I could feel the chilly air fueling Scarlett, the hot-headed mare I was riding, with excitement. She twitched her tail, waiting for our turn to approach the tiny cross-rail. My eleven-year-old self took a deep breath, and tried to swallow down the butterflies that were escaping from my stomach.
After feeling my heart thump with fear, I kicked Scarlett into action.
Hard. Too hard.
She leapt into a gallop and charged over the fence with glee. Just before we reached the fence, I glanced down, and slammed onto the hard earth below.
I coughed the dirt from my lungs, standing up. As I wiped the dust and manure from my riding pants, I struggled to regather my wits.
I started riding horses in elementary school, and like anyone, was afraid of falling. I took a couple of hard falls off of Scarlett, the hot-headed mare, and my anxiety further increased.
It is a well known adage, “If you fall off the horse, you have to get back on.” Both literally and metaphorically, this maxim has become an important part of my life.
My riding instructor was cut from a rough cloth, and her solution to my fear of falling was to put me on a pony that thew me to the ground again and again. “Are you hurt?” She’d ask in her raspy voice after she pulled me out of the fluffy snow.
I’d nod my head and climb back up. This trainer didn’t take flak from her students; at eleven, I knew that if I didn’t get back on after a fall, she would never allow me back into the ring. I couldn’t let me fear or freshly bruised butt get the best of me.
Time and again, I caught the pony, climbed back into the saddle only to fall again.
Over and over, a gruff voice called across the ring, prodding me to keep going. Her words echoed in my head. So did another; this one from deep within my core, pushing me to prove to myself and to my trainer that I could do it.
As a teacher, I strive to help my students to dig deeper, to find that inner voice and the drive to keep going. This year, I see a bigger disparity than ever before between the kids who come to school ready to learn and those who do not. In one of my more troubling classes, only about 30% of the students complete their homework. This means that the other 70% lag behind in their development of skills, comprehension and pace of learning.
It seems like the standards keep getting higher and higher, but my pace isn’t enough to keep up with them. (ha! see what I did there? “Standards” is the word for horse jumps and for the learning benchmarks for kids)
The gap separating these students from their peers increases exponentially by the day. I’ve tried everything I can think of to help close this gap; candy bars, opening lines of communication, motivational speeches and movies, reduced workloads and promises of fun. So far, nothing has worked. When questioned about why their work is incomplete, the students answer, “We are just lazy.” I prod them further. Was the work too hard? Did they not get enough practice in class? Did they need more modeling? Fewer questions? A clearer explanation of the purpose?… “It isn’t you. We are lazy.” In truth, there are a myriad of likely reasons for their lack of work completion, and it is hard to find a way to support the kids with all of these issues impacting their ability to learn.
They are eleven. I need to help these kids to keep up with their peers and to close the gap. Each day, I start class anew, hoping to motivate and encourage learning, only to feel myself fall off into despair, again. It is tempting to lower the standards, as my trainer did for me with Scarlett. Instead of helping them, I feel like lowering the standards allows them to pass on without the tools that they need to compete in the world.
Its hard not to give up. I keep listening for that driving voice in the back of my head, and to keep my chin up. I hear a raspy voice shouting, “If you look at the ground, that’s where you’re going to end up!” Once again, I take a deep breath and sink my heels down, determined to get over the fence. No matter how high the standard.
My bad form on Scarlett is evident in the above picture, but I’ve kept at it…
… I’m still growing and learning.