KidsPerforming_000015195311_1920x1080
Kerrying On

Kindergarten Divas

When my daughter Becca prepared to teach kindergartners for the first time, she came to me for advice. Given that the students I had been teaching for the past thirty years were in grad (not grade) school, I told her I had nothing of any use to her (no news there).

“Imagine,” Becca said, “that I’ve taken a sacred oath to ‘first do no harm.’ Now what advice would you give me?”

Without giving it a second’s thought I answered, “Don’t let school chew the students up and spit them out. Don’t let the competitive environment (where kids vie for your attention) pit the students against one another. Don’t let right and wrong answers leave some kids feeling smart and others not so smart.”

“How about teaching the curriculum?” Becca asked, “I’d think that would be my first priority.”

“If a child learns the curriculum, but comes to believe he or she is unable, unworthy, or unskilled, then it will have come at a great price. School experiences, like it or not, play an enormous role in defining a child’s self-image—their expectations of who they are, what they can do, and who they’ll become.

“So Becca” I continued, “my advice would be to take special care. With every letter you teach and every number you introduce, make sure that you transform ‘giving the wrong answer’ into ‘taking part in a learning journey.’ Then, find methods that help each child excel and gain confidence.”

With that hopelessly condescending piece of advice hanging over her head, Becca walked into her kindergarten classroom. I had told her what to achieve and what not to achieve, but I hadn’t given her a smidgeon of advice on how to achieve it. I didn’t know how to achieve it. That was her job to figure out.

Two months later Becca invited Louise and me, along with her students’ parents and other family members, to “An Afternoon on Broadway”—a musical revue performed by—you guessed it—Becca’s kindergartners.

“I followed your advice,” Becca explained when Louise and I arrived. “I wanted to help each child gain the confidence to not only sing and dance with his or her classmates, but to willingly perform a solo. And guess what? Everyone volunteered for solos.” One look around and you could tell that the parents were far more nervous than the kids, who appeared surprisingly calm as they filed into the cafeteria and took their places on the risers.

As the cafeteria lights went down and the crowd hushed, Becca pounded the piano while thirty kids burst into singing, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” At key points throughout the number, a child would step out from the chorus and sing a stanza or recite a verse—with astonishing force and confidence.

I quickly realized that as delightful as the performance was going to be, half the fun was in watching the parents as their kids took the spotlight. They nearly burst with pride. Their children didn’t mumble their parts. They didn’t stare awkwardly at the floor. They didn’t giggle, stumble, and clam up. They boldly spoke their pieces and sang their songs as if they’d been on stage their entire lives (all five years). And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the kids took turns stepping to center stage and dancing a jazz number. I though their parents were going to explode with enthusiasm.

What made all of this singing, dancing, and reciting so extraordinary wasn’t merely that each child deftly performed a solo, but that they had done so while coming from ordinary backgrounds. True, this all took place at a private school, but most of the students came from families of moderate means. Several took two buses to get to school. About half of the children spoke English as their second language and did so with parents who were just learning English themselves.

The audience members leapt to their feet as the show came to an end and the applause thundered through the cafeteria. Finally, as the last “Bravo!” was shouted, the kids ran to their families where they were hugged, kissed, and praised.

And then something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. “Are you Miss Patterson’s mama and papa?” a woman asked as she approached my wife and me.

“Why yes,” Louise answered.

“We’re the Parks,” the woman continued. “We moved here from South Korea two years ago and feared the day Sammy would go to school. He’s small and shy, so we worried that he would get lost in the crowd. We were wrong. At first he was nervous about going to school, but every day he came home more confident and stronger than the day before. And then today—he sang, danced, and recited a poem—all solos. We would never have believed it possible!” Then the tears came. Both parents were overwhelmed. They went on to thank us for raising such a wonderful teacher—not merely someone who covered the topics (which she did magnificently), but someone who had also made each child feel admired, capable, and confident.

Once the word got out that Louise and I were Becca’s mom and dad, parent after parent approached us to express their pleasure in seeing their kids blossom in school—not only in the assigned subjects, but also in self-assurance. They were shocked when their child took to the cafeteria stage like a seasoned member of SAG. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it myself.

None of this happened by accident. Becca had taken to heart the admonition to build the children’s confidence right along with their academic performance. She loved and respected each of her students, and coached them to success. As the children succeeded in, say, math, she gave them one more gift. She didn’t poison their thinking by telling them they were good at math. She told them they excelled in math because they worked hard at math. That way, when they found math to be difficult one day (and they would), they’d figure if they worked harder they’d succeed. Children who are told they are good at math or music or whatever, when they eventually face challenges, tend to back off and figure they aren’t so good after all. When you focus on the fact that the children are succeeding because they’re working hard, this tactic eventually leads to resilience, confidence, and creativity.

Becca also aimed her “You worked hard” discussions at children who showed an ability to work and play well with their peers (an important but often ignored skill). When kids started to argue or got in a tiff, she taught them interpersonal skills (using role-plays), with special attention to kindness and respect. And when the kids eventually learned how to solve interpersonal problems in a kindly and respectful way, she explained that it was because they had worked hard. Because they had worked hard.

And so had Becca.

Headshot

Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

24 thoughts on “Kindergarten Divas”

  1. Wow! What an amazing and inspiring story. One of my children (who are all adults now) had a challenge in school academically and socially. In 5th grade he had a teacher who was like your daughter, Becca, in that she had an ability to empower her students, and build their confidence. I will forever be grateful for teachers who have a commitment to not only teaching subjects, but building up their students. Great job mom and pop!

  2. Great article. I shared it on facebook but realized that the title gives the wrong flavor. To me, “Divas” are ridiculously behaved women who overvalue their skills or value. The article focuses on teaching the opposite.

    1. That raises an interesting point. I had to look the word “diva” up. It is defined as “female singer of pop” and “famous female of opera” both which would make the title somewhat appropriate. But then there is the definition of “a self-important person, typically a woman, who is temperamental and difficult to please” which is what gave you pause. Hmmm. My initial thought was that I think divas can be men too, in the third definition. But given the first two definitions, which is what it appears that the author was using, how on earth did the word go from one meaning to the other? This language of ours is tricky.
      By the way, this article is among the best I have read on the blog. I am in education, and we refer to this as part of a “growth mindset.” It is some of the most promising lines of research to give some hope to our teachers who work tirelessly to understand the motivation and engagement of students, particularly those students who are in some way, struggling or at-risk.

  3. Thank heavens for good teachers! I see and hear of, many young people today in the job market confidently start a job, give almost no effort, provide subpar work, and then expect that everyone should praise them for the junk they turned in. Unfortunately, the bigger the ego, the harder they fall. What I love about Becca is that she praised them for working hard! She didn’t lie to them and tell them they were “good” at it. She praised them for making great effort, which encourages improvement. They may have to try many times, but they won’t feel ashamed of it, they will be empowered by it. I have a boy and girl, twins. I watched as my son gave little to no effort and was reasonably successful in school, while his sister cried over her homework night after night. She felt “stupid” (okay, she didn’t say that word because they don’t say that word anymore, but it was the same sentiment). Why didn’t she learn quickly like her brother and the other kids? I told her that I could see how hard she worked and how tough it was for her just to get by. I thought back to my college days and how tough it was for freshmen who had to sink or swim to learn study skills (for many it was the first time they had ever studied). I told her I thought that while it was hard for her now, that it would be an advantage to her when she got to college. She was learning good study habits that would propel her toward success in college. Likewise, those kids who don’t have to work hard in middle school and senior high, don’t develop those skills and don’t know what it takes to struggle with a subject and conquer it. That year, she kept working hard and didn’t feel shamed by it. In fact, I would over hear her telling others that she doesn’t learn easily and she has to study hard every night, but that she is learning good study habits that she’ll need in college. She still has to study hard for hours every night, but she has confidence that she can master it. She is now an honor student.

  4. WOW! Now that is an inspiring story!
    First, thank you for raising a wonderful person that became an outstanding educator. To me, there is a huge difference between someone that teaches and one that educates.
    Second, thank you for sharing the story in your usual eloquent way. 🙂
    Third, thank you for giving us a valuable tool as we go through life’s journey of interacting with our fellow humans…and to certain extent, our pets.

    Thank you,

    Steve

  5. This is my favorite VitalSmarts newsletter ever and should be included in teacher resource materials at every school in the country every year. And appear in newspapers around the country. I’m a nearly 54 year old woman with no children and if I found it that moving and helpful I can only imagine if every teacher and parent out there read it and took it to heart…it might do more to begin shifting the course of our country than anything else we could do as a society for our kids. Kerry, you ROCK!!! (and Becca does too!)

  6. Your story was very moving and touching on multiple levels. I will be sharing it in the hope to stir and stimulate how leadership occurs at all levels of our lives as parents, siblings, and friends . . .

  7. I cried when I read this post. I love most of your posts, but often don’t have time to read so your headline captured my attention enough to read – so good job. However, it was misleading a bit because I didn’t know what I was going to read about … but was still intrigued. As a former teacher, all I could think about was all the mistakes I made that I wish I could fix for kids. What a lot of pressure there is in teaching – “molding kids” – etc. In fact, I left teaching faced with the pressure of parenting thinking “how could I possibly do both?” Hindsight is 20/20. I would have been fine, but my teaching years (6) sure taught me a lot about parenting and helped me be a better nurse – and now a nursing leader. I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from learning – and the content sure is not the important piece – but relationships are. This is the most important thing I’ve learned from your books, training, and continuing education you provide to my inbox. Thanks so much and keep your “Kerrying” on!

  8. Excellent story! I know a few adults that could use this kind of skill! It’s very true that if told that “you’re good at…” that when things do not go so well, you question whether or not you’ve been kidding yourself all along. Thanks for sharing! I am always inspired by your stories!!

    1. I’m reminded of the occasional contestant trying out for the TV show American Idol. They’re told that they can’t sing a lick by the judges and nobody before that had ever bothered to do anything other than say how good they were, when, well, they weren’t. It’s sad to watch.

  9. A wonderful and inspiring story. And what a good advice to focus on positive learning experience and the concept of hard work being the main ingredient for success and change.

  10. My wife has expressed on multiple occasions that her fondest, most memorable, and enriching school year was 4th grade when her class spent the whole year preparing a musical production themed around the history of Idaho. Today she has organized a choir for kids of all ages with the goal of instilling in them the joy of music and singing and the confidence to do it. The kids may not be able to transpose or even carry a tune really well, but they can belt out “Ol’ Dan Tucker” and “Found a Peanut”! I’m sure there are more sophisticated songs to come, but that isn’t the point. Becca’s story strikes a cord because finding joy in life through uplifting and enriching enterprises is a treasure beyond description and a far better goal than rote learning of facts and figures.

  11. As usual Kerry, you “killed it”! You’re a master at telling the story and it’s easy to see how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree for you and your wife. Well done to Becca for taking the advice and working hard at finding her own solution. Well done to you and Louise….you must both be bursting at the seams with pride as well! Supremely inspiring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *