Get out of the water or you’ll drown.

Beth Dixon

The 90 pounds of equipment didn’t seem like life support. I was freezing and claustrophobic in my rented wetsuit. My mask was leaking saltwater into my eyes, and an unforgiving mixture of sharp liquid and air gushed into my throat from accidentally biting my mouthpiece. I have no gills. I have no swim bladder. I am going to die. Panicked, I clutched at my instructor and he took me by the shoulders, saying “It’s like a fish tank. You’ll love it.” He pushed a switch somewhere on my suit and I was finally able to float. We reviewed breathing through the mouthpiece, and I adjusted my goggles.

    All animals avoid struggle. It’s an evolutionary advantage to be able to get out of dangerous situations before they begin. Technology has changed this. It’s not those who struggle who fail in our society, because lives without struggle don’t exist. Our ability to handle these struggles determine our success. The distribution of struggle is highly unfair. Those who accumulate resources use them to avoid struggle: They keep their offspring protected from harm, as all creatures do. We recognize that this protection is a false wall. We build children’s ‘character’ by imposing socially sanctioned struggles with a cushion of parental support. We all mean well: to protect our own and lead them into success.

    On the opposite side of town are parents who struggle to house themselves. Their children are born into struggles, growing up with invisible encumbrances they may never recognize or outgrow. They lack the head start that money affords and, regardless of parental love and support, find themselves unconditioned for the world they’re entering. Poverty is a sledgehammer to their knees at the starting line. By the time they heal, the race is over. The few who overcome poverty are trapped in a nether class: Their calloused hands become a reminder of the ladder they’ve climbed. It’s easier to stay down than to regret your lonely ascent.

    Most of us aren’t exceptional. We can easily think of three worse and three better families: We are the unfortunate fortunate ones. We can’t afford private school but can drive our kids to a public charter every day. This year, 131 students will learn biology in a room with great windows, exposed ductwork, and unfinished cement floors. It’s my classroom. Here’s the part their families hate: I don’t give a damn about their kid’s grade. This isn’t a trendy, standards-based answer to student success questions either: My aim is to figure out how to get students to engage in the struggle and win.

    My students are 15 years younger than I am at most. These kids will be working with me, not picking out my nursing home. I can’t afford to sugarcoat the mess we’re in and who’s going to have to clean it up. We’re not playing school. We’re equipping our society for survival, and these are the children who will be solving our biggest problems. The task at hand is determining when and how to push students academically in order to help them reach their potential for the good of everyone.

    Struggle in my classroom can’t be established until students trust me. Demonstrating caring, sharing my goals for them, explaining the course goals, and recognizing and communicating feelings to my classes are a necessary part of teaching. Students have to know that you’re going to catch them before they’re willing to take a leap. They have to struggle to learn something meaningful, and learning to overcome struggle is the most valuable thing I can teach them. Their success comes down to understanding where they are on a daily basis. For me, this means where they fall in my head on this chart:

   Students’ ability to engage in productive struggle is mitigated by three constantly changing factors: their parental involvement (socioeconomic status, ability to resolve conflict effectively, etc.); their motivation in school; and their inherent ability to do well on school-related academic tasks. Student ability can be affected by everything from how much they were read to as a child to the amount of sleep they had last night. Their motivation can wax and wane with parental involvement or hold steady regardless of input. Identifying students on this spectrum allows us to begin to have conversations about students that may be helpful for educators: How do we serve a student who has no parental support and is highly motivated but has low ability? What happens when a student has high parental involvement and high ability but low motivation? What about a moderate amount of motivation and high ability but toxic parental involvement?

    Each situation has a commonality: They all require a compassionate instructor to introduce challenging material, model successful struggle, and provide students with skills rather than answers. Struggle is a visceral, uncomfortable, necessary place for learners. Providing students with strategies, curriculum, and facts cannot happen until they trust that teachers have their best interests at heart. Earning trust depends on the student, their circumstances, and an individual teacher’s personality. When students enter fight-or-flight mode because they’re in unfamiliar waters, they’ll need a teacher to set them on the right course.

   As a terrified scuba student I had reached struggle: In fact, I was past it. Panic had set in. I couldn’t reconcile the idea that my body was sinking but I’d be alive and well with my scuba gear. Intellectually I got it - but my body was in full-fledged fight-or-flight mode. Taking students from panic to understanding requires courage, trust, and experience. When I look to support students in unfamiliar territory, I go back to when I was in panic and remember the support I needed. The scuba instructor gave me choices but supported my decisions. He explained the benefits of success and the costs of failure. He took my fear seriously and listened to my concerns. Because of his patience I was able to succeed: I tightened my grip on his gloved hand, pushed under the water, and opened my eyes. 

Bethany Dixon is in her sixth year of classroom teaching. She is the science department chair and teaches biology and AP Biology to wonderful students at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, a public charter school in Rocklin, CA. Beth is a regional coordinator for the National Association of Biology Teachers and has written for the California Science Teachers Association. She was Clark County School District's New Teacher of the Year, an NSTA Teacher Academy Dow Fellow, and a NASA teacher researcher. Beth is an active-duty Air Force wife to a patient husband and mother to a gregarious kindergartener. Currently, she is working with Stanford's Center to Support Excellence in Teaching and Howard Hughes Medical Institute to build a Regional Teacher Academy for AP Biology teachers.