I don’t trust words that end in “-ed” when they are used to describe emotions.
Take “loved” for example, as in “I feel loved.” Well, no, “loved” is not a feeling. That sentence really means that you have noticed that someone loves you. What you feel is another thing. You may feel happy, joyful, ecstatic; you may feel love in return for the person who loves you.
On the other hand, if the person who loves you is a spouse that you want to divorce, you may feel guilty, sad, impatient, angry…. If the person who says “I love you,” is stalking you, you may be afraid, angry, anxious, curious….
Those words ending in “-ed” are passive. They indicate that someone has been acted upon, but in themselves the words carry no emotion. The person who is acted upon can have a full range of emotions about the situation. However, some of these “-ed” words have acquired so much baggage that we think of them as feelings.
A condition, not a feeling
“Frustrated” is one such word that comes up often in connection with teaching and learning. In itself, it simply means ”blocked or prevented from reaching a goal or destination.”
“The thunderstorm frustrated our plans for a picnic.”
The person who is allergic to wasps may feel glad to have the picnic cancelled; the person who just baked two pies, assembled a prize-winning potato salad, and who was hoping for lots of acclaim as a cook and baker, will likely have different emotions.
“The baby gate at the top of the stairs frustrated the puppy’s desire to come down to the party.”
You can bet that the puppy’s feelings are different from the person who put the gate up in the first place!
Frustrated, but cheerful
Take a GED or a pre-GED student attempting a newly assigned set of math word problems. He solves the first one and checks with his neighbour, only to find that she has come up with a different answer and is confident that she is right.
He has been frustrated in his attempt to arrive at the right answer, but cheerfully attacks the problem again. He thinks he finds the error in his thinking, and arrives at a new answer. Pleased with his efforts, he flags his teacher.
“No, not right” she says, “Take another look at the example at the top of the page.”
Again, he has been frustrated in his attempt to solve the problem, but he likes the advice from his teacher, takes another look at the example, and tries again.
He is still frustrated when his neighbour, whose work has now been marked right by the teacher, whispers that his new answer (the third) is still wrong.
A super hero, frustrated
This news does not deflate him, however. He sees that heroic measures are called for and digs in with a will. He changes all the big numbers in the problem to small, manageable ones. It is a strategy his teacher has taught him, and when he uses it, sometimes his intuition kicks in and shows him how to proceed.
He stares at the modified problem for a few minutes, squinty-eyed, and waits hopefully. Nothing happens. No flash of inspiration. He has been frustrated once again, but, since the class has come to an end, he packs up his math to do for homework, and goes out, still hopeful .
Frustrated, but resourceful
When he digs his books out again that evening, the atmosphere is different. There is no cheerful buzz of other students around him working on math. There is no teacher in the room, ready to help if asked. He feels less confident, less hopeful, now that he’s home, but he squares his shoulders and starts in again, hoping to get the homework out of the way in time to watch the game on TV.
After looking at the problem for a few minutes, and going over the example, he looks up the answer in the back of the book. Turning to the problem again, he tries to work backwards from the answer to find how the problem was solved, but he cannot figure it out.
Still frustrated, growing desperate
At this point, he decides he needs help, so he asks his wife to take a look at the problem. It’s a little dicey, asking his wife–sometimes she’s very helpful, at other times impatient, but no matter what her response, he never likes to be dependent on her. Still, she’s his best bet right now.
She takes a look at the problem, takes a look at the example and announces that she does that kind of problem a different way; she can’t do it the way his book says to do it.
He feels desperate to get his homework done before the game starts, so he asks her to show him how she does it. She takes his pencil out of his hand, pulls his notebook towards herself, and settles in. He sits, bored and a little anxious, waiting.
It takes her a few minutes and several attempts to recall how she used to do that kind of problem, but eventually she checks her answer in the back of the book and says, with a note of triumph, “There! I got it.”
Still frustrated in his own attempts at the problem, he sees a possible glimmer of light. “Good,” he says. “Can you show me how you did it? I’ve got ten more to do.”
Frustrated, feeling stupid and angry
She tries to explain, but cannot find the words, and grows impatient when he does not understand quickly. He reacts to her impatience by feeling stupid, then angry, and finally slams the book shut. “I give up,” he says. “I’ll never get this.”
Most people would recognize that last interchange as frustration, but in reality, this student has been frustrated since he first set out to do the page of problems, in the sense that there was a barrier to reaching his goal, and he was struggling to overcome it.
The steps I’ve recounted here might have taken 20 or 30 minutes in class and half an hour at home, but most people would not have seen frustration until the very end. Over that hour, we would have seen him cheerfully applying clues from his teacher, thinking as he talked math with his neighbour, being creative as he re-jigged the problem to court his intuition, resilient in the face of repeated failure, practical in asking for help.
We would call him persistent, not frustrated.
We would call him engaged.
Yet often that student, thinking about himself and math, (or English, or any other subject you’d like to take as an example), will say, “I can’t do math. I get so frustrated I just want to give up.”
And the teacher may say, “He needs to learn to deal with frustration. He needs to keep trying, even when he is frustrated.”
Both teacher and student are using “frustrated” to name that negative feeling that came at the end of that long hour of frustration, engagement and persistence.
When we focus on the last minute of this hour, the slamming of the books, the giving up in defeat, we miss seeing the work that was done.
Even more damaging, when the student remembers only the defeat, the feeling stupid, the anger at himself and at math, he has an incorrect idea of himself as a student. He sees himself as a quitter rather than as someone who persists. He sees himself as a failure instead of someone with a variety of skills, strategies and methods of attack.
As teachers, we can decide to look at all the emotions that students display when something is blocking their paths to their goals. Furthermore, the feedback we give can help students to see their growing repertoire of skills, and their positive engagement in the process.
I don’t mean a teacher should say, ”You really tried hard to get this.”
I mean really specific feedback that focuses on what the teacher saw the student doing, things he may not be aware of himself:
“I saw you attempt to solve the problem three different ways. I heard you talking with your neighbour about the math, and you studied the example in the book. I know you tried that “using smaller numbers” strategy, and I liked how you made the decision to ask for help when you ran out of ideas. In the face of frustration, you worked hard for an hour. That’s a sign of a good student. You didn’t give up. Even when you ran out of ideas, you didn’t run away. You asked for help.”
Especially our students in adult literacy, GED prep, adult basic education, upgrading, call it what you will, who have experienced years of failure, need help to see themselves as acting like successful students, even when they are not learning quickly.
Frustration is the garden where persistence grows.