1997-98 was my first year as a teacher. I worked at a private school in Cincinnati as the middle school intern. I still consider that year to be the most important year of my professional life because it left no doubt in me that choosing education for my career was the absolutely right choice. I haven’t regretted that decision since, even on the difficult days. That year was also my introduction to Richard Lavoie and his philosophy on the importance of self esteem on learners called, “When the Chips are Down.” Mr. Lavoie compares self esteem of a student (his focus is on students with learning difficulties) to having poker chips. He believes the more “chips” one has, the more readily that student will take risks and grow.
I remember watching this video during my first year and then again in my second year teaching. My buddies and I quoted Lavoie often mocking the idea and telling each other things like, “you must not have many poker chips” or “that took a lot of poker chips to do that.” However, the idea resonated with me as one where I wanted to be a teacher who looked for ways to help kids gain or at least maintain their “poker chips” (self-esteem).
Conceptually, the analogy worked for me, even if it was a little sloppy. While comparing life to a poker game was not ideal, I did find that the idea a poker player with several chips would take risks that another player with only a few chips would not take seemed logical to what I had experienced in life. Confident students take risks that kids without confidence do not take. More importantly, kids with high self esteem can often take criticism more effectively then those with low esteem. The student with high esteem may look at a lower then expected score as a challenge for future work and strive to do better next time where the kid with low esteem may view it as a flaw in their character. Consequently, the kid with the inflated self esteem seems to struggle the most with constructive feedback as they are so used to being told their perfect that the feedback can be confusing and forces them to wonder if those telling them they’re perfect are right or wrong. It causes real tension in relationships between students, parents and teachers (and schools) when this is the case.
As teachers and parents, we have a lot of sway with our kids. We can give esteem, over-inflate it, or take it away in the way we talk (or not talk) to kids, in how we maintain patience with them, or when we allow them to take ownership in their learning and understanding. We have to be honest in our interactions or as this video shows, someone else will be brutally honest. Kids who are struggling need to know that they are struggling and need to be given tools to help them work through those struggles. Overcoming their difficulties will give them the kinds of self esteem that we want our kids to have. They’ll know that they can rely on themselves to solve problems, but they will also know that they can rely on your support to help them through those problems. In the end, it is that lesson that has ultimately guided my path as a teacher and now a parent. Plus, I’ve learned to be pretty good at beating my neighbors in poker.