By: Toni M. Poling
When my son turned six, we bought him a Ninja Turtle bicycle, complete with Leonardo helmet and Ninja Turtle knee and elbow pads. I couldn’t wait to watch him zipping around the park on his bike! I told him story after story of how I spent my summers on bike rides with friends and about the feeling of going so fast that it felt like flying. I showed him a scar on my knee from my first bike wreck and we talked about the importance of getting back up. My son had always shown some natural athletic ability and outside is his favorite place in the world; I just knew he would hop on that bike and take off! I just wish he had known that, too.
Our first day on the bike ended in tears and frustration, and my son was pretty upset, too. The first time I let go of him, he forgot how to use the breaks and careened right into a juniper bush, scratching his arm and leg. There was no convincing him to get back on for weeks. Unfortunately, our second, third, and fourth times on the bike were no better. I read blogs and watched videos; my husband took training wheels off, put training wheels on, removed pedals, replaced pedals until eventually the Ninja Turtle bike moved into the garage where it continued to age gracefully. My son showed no interest in learning to ride a bike and instead moved on to basketball and Tae Kwan Do.
With his eleventh birthday approaching, my husband and I asked our son what he would like as a gift and were shocked to hear him say he wanted a new bike. Having outgrown the Ninja Turtle bike in the garage, we sized him and purchased a red, white, and blue Schwinn Falcon. My husband hid it expertly in the basement until the big day. Meanwhile, we would spend our evenings leading up to our son’s birthday talking about our nervousness and wondering if this time would be any better.
His birthday dawned cool, but fairly moderate for March in West Virginia. We surprised him with his new bike, loaded it in the truck, and headed for the park. When we arrived, I helped him snap on his helmet while my husband and I peppered with him bike riding tips.
“Make sure you look up!”
“Push off and keep pedaling!”
“If you wreck, you’ll be ok. Just hop back on!”
“Don’t look at your feet!”
My son responded with his patented eleven-year-old, “I know!” As he climbed on the bike, I grabbed my husband’s arm and started to close my eyes while waiting for the first crash, but it never came. That boy hopped on that bike and took off like he had been riding his entire life! He pedaled, he kept his head up (mostly), and he literally drove in circles around us! As he rode by me he called out, “This is awesome! I’m going so fast!”
This story is one more example of my son doing something in his own time, in his own way, and only when he is ready. I could tell the same story about his reading, multiplication tables, handwriting, etc. Before he decided he could do it, there was no way he was getting back on a bike. Before he decided he could do it, there was no way he would voluntarily pick up a book.
In the meantime, I continued to champion his efforts. I couldn’t get him on a bike, but I did get him to practice his balance on a scooter! He didn’t want to read my favorite book as a child, but then he brought home a book about sharks that he was excited about! He didn’t want to practice his multiplication flashcards, but he asked me to download a math game for him. I had to accept that his pathway to success isn’t the pathway I would pick, but the destination is the same.
We each have students in our classes who may seem a little behind the others. We worry that they aren’t applying themselves; they aren’t practicing; they aren’t getting it. These are the students who keep us up at night; the ones that lead us to trying new pedagogies, buy new books, reach out to our own teaching mentors for fresh approaches and new ways to engage. These are the students who can make us question our effectiveness as educators. These are the students who, when they succeed, remind us why we pour our hearts into this profession.
I challenge you, dear colleagues, to stay the course. Our most challenging students are the ones who need us the most, the ones who need you to champion not only their successes but their efforts. Help your students find their path, even when it isn’t the one you would walk. The wait is definitely worth it.
WVCTE is wondering how you encourage students to find their own learning path?