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Sarah Gains Confidence

by Mark J. Balaz

Having lived in Northern New Jersey my entire life, the process should have been easy for me to start in a new school in a suburb of New York City. I had worked as a teacher in Newark, New Jersey (one of the most “urban” areas in the state) and Tokyo, Japan (in no way shape or form urban in the same way) among other places. My charges this time were 7th grade students, generally average achievers, with an added few of the most academically and socially challenged the school had to offer.


Sarah was unlike most of the other students in this upper-middle class area. She was raw, sometimes rude, and completely hysterical with jokes and an awesome debater when an opportune moment arrived. Her study skills were hard to find, even in classes where everyone else seemed to have acquired this skill. Her academic self-esteem was not high, and she often gave up on assignments before even trying.


About two weeks into this school year, I was at my wits end. I spoke to Sarah’s father, a guidance counselor, my vice-principal, the student’s former teacher, and even tried to speak to mom…who just got out of jail. The negative circumstances for the student were piling up fast and she was “drowning.” Sarah’s friends even came to me because they were concerned about her well-being. This small piece of information was all I needed and was now determined to solve the puzzle that was Sarah, who believed she would fail and that was all she needed to hear. The problem was that I believed she could succeed, as I do with all students.


In a moment of desperation, I quietly started to pose a special question to Sarah “I believe you can do it, what do you believe?” I would ask this periodically, and in the beginning, she would offer no response to this apparently difficult question. Her indecisive answer helped me further infer that she truly believed she could not succeed. This was clearly loud enough for everyone to hear, so I started asking other students the same thing so as not to single out Sarah. Strange things like this were not unheard of in my class, so the students gladly played along. I started the first day asking the question about 3 times and virtually stopped pressuring in class; the pressure I previously gave her has obviously not been working. The next day I asked a few more times and soon this was my mantra for both Sarah and the class. I spoke to her father to get him on my side and he loved the idea. All that had to be done was to get Sarah to believe that she could succeed, as it is my assumption that with “attitude comes altitude.”


The first week of questioning only brought frustration to Sarah because of her low self-esteem. During the second week, the students began to question EACH OTHER, “I believe you (I) can do it, what do you believe?” Sarah’s friends even began to ask her this on a daily basis, making some friction in the friendship but they persevered and looked for the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone saw the point of this operation except Sarah.


I eventually got tired of asking this question, so I started to write these words on small slips of paper, eventually I used “post its” as they adhered to the desk. Sarah had a habit of “dropping” paper on the floor unless it remained attached to her desk. She tried to cover them up, but I had lots of post it papers.


One of Sarah’s friends told me about an Internet messenger program that was popular among my students, especially Sarah. Soon this is what my screen (and Sarah’s) looked like:


Mr. B: I believe you can do it, what do you believe?

Sarah: Bla Bla Bla…

Mr. B: I believe you can do it, what do you believe?

Sarah: Bla Bla Bla…

Mr. B: I believe you can do it, what do you believe?

Sarah: Bla Bla Bla…

Mr. B: I believe you can do it, what do you believe?

Sarah: Bla Bla Bla…

Mr. B: I believe you can do it, what do you believe?

Sarah: Go away!!!!


Eventually her father and friends were messaging her with the same monotone idea. My thinking was that Sarah was going to have to give in soon or go crazy from our philosophical and mental onslaught of self-esteem boosting.


By the end of the third week, I was still yet to receive a “proper” response from Sarah; my hope was beginning to falter. In week four, I was checking my math homework pile, and I saw Sarah’s name on top of a worksheet. This was a rare event to say the least. I brought Sarah up to my desk and praised her heavily for completing this activity. While she was staring at the floor, she mumbled to me, “I believed I could do it…”


To be honest, she only got the first question right out of 10 on that assignment, but that was not the point I was trying to make with Sarah. After SHE believed she could do it, asking her to come in for help after school became a WHOLE LOT EASIER. Sarah began to pass my class, be much less of a discipline problem, and SMILE everyday.


The lessons I learned and applied to this situation:


  1. It is not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it that matters…

  2. The biggest room is the ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT.

  3. Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) – You can always do better than you think you can.

  4. We are what we repeatedly do OR THINK.


I can find few reasons to teach and be involved in education beyond this story.

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