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Finding Merit in Weakness

Posted by Jen on June 16, 2010 at 8:27 AM in School
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I spent a few hours yesterday in a promotion ceremony for Madeleine's fifth grade class. With a dedicated staff, kind administration and diverse group of engaged and enthusiastic kids, Madeleine's school experience in this little third, fourth and fifth grade neighborhood school has been something to remember.

What touched me the most yesterday, however, was the awarding of promotion certificates. Madeleine's teacher, Ms. Lane, took her time to acknowledge each one of her twenty-seven students by calling each one forward by name and saying a few words of appreciation about each child. This kind of situation always makes me nervous in schools, because most of the time you end up learning more about the teacher than you do the child. Case in point: Madeleine's first grade teacher used this opportunity to give one last scolding to the kids who were clearly on her nerves. Ouch.

Madeleine's teacher, however, took a very novel approach. Instead of pointing to each child's obvious strength (which would have sent eyes rolling as the kids registered the reality of that child's unspoken weakness), she highlighted something about each child that might appear on the surface to be a problem.

The troublesome questioner was acknowledged as a divergent thinker that sometimes pushed the class in directions no one wanted to go, but whose intensity often yielded more profitable conversations.

The kid with the penchant for gore and fantasy was celebrated as someone who knew how to appropriately walk the line and develop an active imagination in an appropriate venue--creative writing.

The child who was struggling with mastery of basic skills was heralded as someone who was mastering the art of practice, an invaluable skill for future success--no matter what the endeavor.

What struck me most about this exercise was the way Ms. Lane was able to respectfully acknowledge what was sometimes unwelcome or difficult without excusing or candy coating the truth, and then take that same quality and recognize the hidden gift--the treasure that in the long run benefited the child but also the entire group.

The proof that she mastered this task was in the response of the children--there was a collective ease and comfort in the room as each true observation was shared. The kids concurred with laughter and knowing nods--she got it just right.

I wonder if this isn't primarily our challenge as parents--to see the merit hiding in our children's weaknesses. To find a way to acknowledge that the areas where they can't manage to fit in or conform or even excel, just might be the very arenas where their finest achievements will grow. What do you think?

I don't have the answers on this one, but I'm very thankful for Ms. Lane and this final way she unknowingly challenged me as a parent to reconsider my perspective and grow.


Sheryl writes...

Great article. I wish all teachers (and truthfully myself) were better at this.

Liz K writes...

There is a wonderful book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel who addresses this exact thing, of how our child's greatest strength lies in their worst quality, and the job of the parent is to recognize, acknowledge and channel that inclination to more constructive expression. The book is rooted in Jewish theology, but this particular insight is helpful to all parents, regardless of your faith tradition.

Meg Casey writes...

As a manager I always tell my staff that their greatest weakness is also their greatest strength and that my job is to help them turn it on its head. So true for us as parents and teachers too. Some might say that my son has a hard time making decisions and can be a bit "go along to get along" --but truth is that he sees many perspectives and is able to be flexible and accomodate the needs of others into his plan--something that when harnessed will take him far. His best friend is often criticized as being "bossy" but I see him as an assertive child who knows how to make his desires and needs met. I frequently tell them both that they should aim to learn from each other.
How lovely that the teacher worked so hard at this to celebrate children so fully.

Troy writes...

Such kindness and integrity. I like very much how much effort she put in to her comments: memorable, meaningful praise.

tracey writes...

brilliant idea! i love this and will be thinking about this a's got my wheels turning for sure.

jane writes...

this is rich and kindness in action

Cameron writes...

Oh, I love this, and I hope that you let Ms. Lane how great you think she is. :)

Melanie writes...

Thank you! This makes me almost want to cry! It's so touching for people to look for the positive in children and other people!

simone writes...

So true. Tonight my daughter pretended to have laryngitis and was walking around with a notepad. I was noticing how silent and peaceful the night was, but also, felt a little sad that her voice was missing and the usual laughter and mischief was gone. She can get in a very bossy mood and can argue in a way that will make your head spin, but she also has a funny view of life, a quirky vocabulary and a way with words. I also see it as two sides of a coin. I must remember that as I go through my day and see the "downsides" as upsides in disguise. Sometimes I try saying to myself "I wouldn't change a thing."

Shannon writes...

Awesome. As a kid, big surprise to anyone who knows me, I was a talker. Never shut up. I remember in 7th grade I won an award at the school science fair, and my teacher, Mrs. Moriarty looked at me and said "now you're going to tell me its a gift."

Turned out, it was a gift. I have been speaking and writing my whole life. It's my core. Sometimes I still talk too much, write too long, and I can overwhelm people. I am type A and don't like things to go off plan. I NEED to have a concrete plan and long term schedule. But I am still an outstanding communicator and super organized and detail oriented, which has certainly been more of a blessing than a curse. My son, whose personality seems to be identical to mine at this age, is much the same. I am constantly challenging myself to put myself in his shoes. I hope that I can do as good of a job helping him to channel his assertiveness, talkativeness and need for control in positive ways.

Mel writes...

I remember well when my elementary school teacher kept me back after class emptying my school bag which was full of old sandwiches, rubbish etc. At home no one really cared about looking into this, but she did. I was initially embarrassed. But she was so good about it.

From then on, I knew how to keep my bag tidy. It sounds profane, but I guess it was my first zen lesson. At the age of 8.

Karen writes...

WOW! What a great teacher, what a great example in every way. We need more like her-- I hope she finds a way to be a mentor to other teachers.

Malestrom writes...

I have been like this all my life and was severely ostracized for it. I grew up in an obscure and desolate part of life making fun for myself in comic books, Sci Fi, animals and imaginational art. I am still there with very few friends. It's good to see that thinking hasn't become extinct.

Pam writes...

This is a central belief that I also hold, and it can change your life - and your parenting. My daughter is too quick to cry and get mad, but also loving and a brilliant singer. We talk about how both things come from the same place - her being in touch with her emotions and her willingness to share that part of herself with other people. It's helped her manage the crying part, but mostly made her less down on herself.

Thanks for sharing this post. Hope that it reaches and helps other parents and teachers.

Sarah writes...

As a mom and a teacher, I love this story. What an inspiring teacher. I once had a 6th grade student who had fairly recently been diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome. His family had also recently discovered that he was a musical prodigy--flip sides of the same "coin." The next year I went to the class next door to hear another child tell his class about his tourette's. After his talk I asked him about the "flip side" of his tourette's, and he joyfully told me about his creativity, sense of humor...He knew exactly what I meant--the gifts that came along with his "syndrome."

Em writes...

I have heard this idea before and always admired the theory intellectually but never been able to quite get it. I love the way the teacher was so specific and it reminded me of my friend recently talking about his son as so incredibly 'stubborn' which is hard to deal with but which is so admired as an adult charateristic as 'perseverance.'
Thank you so much for writing about this, it is just what I need to think about today.

Angie writes...

This is a truly inspiring article, and one that I hope Ms. Lane's fellow educators take to heart. My child has always done well academically, but has been challenging teachers since day one of preschool. He talks too much, laughs too much, questions too much. After a recent visit to the office for talking during library time, I asked him why he finds it so difficult to control himself when he is completely aware of the unpleasant consequences of behaving inappropriately. His response: "Since when is it a crime to have a personality?" The question had a major impact on my perspective. I was never sent to the office as a child, never sent home with a note, always received excellent marks in conduct, but I was also almost painfully shy and reserved. Although I will continue to encourage him to behave appropriately in the classroom, I have learned to be sincerely thankful for the fact that he is outgoing and confident. His personality will continue to carry him happily through life, when the notes home from grade-school are long forgotten. Now, if every teacher could accept and embrace the fact that they are dealing with humans not droids, our children would be far better off.

Tina writes...

My heart feels like it is trying to fly from how true this post rings.

I love this.

For an "adult" version, look into Joseph Campbell's teachings, in which he asserts (and I praphrase): Do not get rid of your vice but make it work for your illumination rather than your degradation. Turn it around on yourself and transform it into your best virtue. See your stubbornness but recognize the tenaciousness that resides within it.

That teacher was passing along a wonderful and mystical lesson. :)

Steph writes...

What a beautiful story. I once had a teacher tell me that I could never be a nurse, my math was not strong enough. I've been a nurse for 24 yrs and could not think of doing anything else in life. Never give up on dreams and always encourage children to do their best and teach them they can be whatever they wish!

Regina Browne writes...

My child was lucky enough to be blesssed
with a teacher like this. She not only gave my child confidence, but as a parent she gave me confidence!! unfortunately teachers like the one in this article and Mrs. Woods few and far in between.

Kyran writes...

Wonderful. There's a letter-to-our-20-year-old-selves meme making the blog rounds lately. Reading this, I think most of us need to reach back even further, and give our fifth grade selves this kind of recognition of strength-within-weakness, retroactively.

What do you say, Jen? Shall we call a virtual honor assembly? ;-)

stefanie writes...

wow - what a gift. if we could of all had a teacher like this. and such a different perspective to take this!

mindy writes...

wow. this is amazing. and something i have never, truly thought about. and feel a tiny bit ashamed that i haven't thought about it.

when stated as you have above i can absolutely see the merits in my kidos weaknesses and will continue to think about this, observe and try to be supportive.

thank you for the inspiration!

Kimberley writes...

I have different words, but I am dealing with this very issue right now. My beautiful boy (9) has several challenges that have led me to over-protect and baby him. I have felt so bad that he is challenged that I have failed to see the gift in his challenges. Until now. I am in the process of redefining who he is to me and what he is developing because of who he is. And the more I do this, the less scared I am for him. And the less scared I am for him, the less scared he will be for himself.

I am beginning now to raise someone who is powerful and able.

Woolie writes...

She sounds like an amazing teacher with a lot to teach, not just her students but their parents as well. I'm thinking I'll give this a try, not just with my children but with myself as well.

Linni writes...

As a teacher to 3- 4 year olds it is sooo important to teach them that 'their problem' (according to others) is fabulous, because it teaches them this and this. My heart literally breaks each time I praise a child for instance when he stands on his hands with his feet against the wall... i will say something like ' that is an awesome move, you are going to be a great athlete one day, but when we do that and your shoes are dirty, we have to repaint the walls'. The pride and smile come straight from their heart and they stand up, push their chest out and say things like 'teacher Lin said I'm going to be great athlete one day'.

I wish everyone realised the impact positive affirmation has on children... things like when they make a mess with the yogurt, it is ok, because we just clean it. and that day when you as a mommy is tired and you scold them for making a mess and your 3 year old looks at you and say 'that's ok, we just clean it'

positive reinforcement.... sooo easy... but so difficult for so many adults...

Ms Lane is magical... she truly is xx

Kimberley writes...

Thank you for sharing this experience. My husband is a special education teacher and I called him in to read it too. It actually brought tears to his eyes. He said, "now that's a teacher!"

You got me thinking about the idea of merit in weakness and wondering what merit there might be in some of my weaknesses. This is a good journal theme for today.

Zoey writes...

To "know" that our weakness and strengths come from the same place is one thing ... the ability to nurture ourselves and others based in that understanding is just plain amazing. Thanks Ms. Lane for setting an example and Jen Lemen for sharing it with us.

What a gift.

Last week I went to my career counselor. She had assigned me to read The Essential Enneagram. It's basically a simple personality test that can help a person gather an understanding about how he/she experiences life. This points directly to the individual's strength=weakness ...

I came up as Type 6 - I try to control my life by anticipating all the bad things that can happen - envisioning all the pitfalls in their gory detail. This is not something I am not proud of (and frankly I thought everyone experienced it to some degree, how could they not!)- but the counselor said that this is also where my strengths comes from - a vivid imagination and creative mind with lot of ideas. She said the task is to work with the strength and manage it's attending "weakness."

What a liberating idea, not to "fix" ourselves (or our kids) but to "work with" ourselves.

Now, off to practice!

Megan writes...

Thank you for sharing this story. We give out awards at the end of the school year and sometimes it is so hard to come up with a good award. This gives me ideas for next year!

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