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Teachers, it’s time to lift the invisible students

As the scholastic year looms on the horizon, educators are gearing up for what is arguably the world’s most important job in the world: shaping the minds of the next generation. Yet, despite the best intentions, our educational systems often inadvertently create barriers that hinder countless children from reaching their full potential.

Let’s consider an example. A child who is outgoing, confident and articulate is often the first to be chosen for school performances or leading roles. This child is placed at the front, given opportunities to shine and, as a result, their self-confidence grows. They are set on a trajectory that seems destined for success.

Conversely, consider children who dread physical education because they are overweight. They may go to great lengths to hide from their teachers and avoid participating, perhaps conveniently needing to use the bathroom during the most challenging exercises. During sports day, they only get selected for the ‘fun’ games (like the infamous potato race) and when teams are chosen during team sports, they are invariably the last pick.

This cycle of avoidance and exclusion, repeated almost weekly for a decade during their formative years, only reinforces a belief that they are not good at sports. Eventually, this might push them to a sedentary life, away from physical activity and fuelled with unhealthy choices, thus leading them towards potential health complications. This is a classic example of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition where individuals feel they have no control over their situation and disengage from effort, even when success is attainable. It manifests in various ways, such as refusing to accept help, quickly giving up and lacking motivation. The condition can affect a child’s motivational, cognitive and emotional functioning, leading to a lack of will, a belief that failure is inevitable and a diminished sense of self-worth.

Teachers are the architects of society and the classroom is their construction site

Luckily, our educational system has come a long way, incorporating more inclusive teaching methods, improved individual attention and diverse curricula. Most children eventually find their calling but we still lose some of them to learned helplessness. These children on the periphery pass through the system without gaining much, exit school with low self-esteem and exhibit a lifelong bitterness for education.

The question arises: how can a child, brimming with potential like a seed waiting to sprout, believe they are not good at anything? The answer lies in the environment. Every seed has the potential to grow into a robust tree but it needs fertile soil rich in nutrients and tender care. Similarly, every child has the potential to excel if given the right opportunities and encouragement.

I acknowledge that teachers have a lot on their plate and can’t handle all the cases. I also appreciate that many systemic reforms are in the pipeline but it will take some time to start feeling the effects.

So, I have an idea to start tackling these children today!

In Malta, we have around 10,000 teachers, according to the National Statistics Office’s 2022 data. Imagine if each of these teachers took it upon themselves to give a big push to just one ‘invisible’ student this year – the one who is often overlooked, the one who struggles academically or socially.

If each teacher commits to this, the impact could be life-changing. We might not remember all the teachers who taught us but I’m sure we all remember that one teacher who made a difference in our lives. If every teacher in Malta does this, we could potentially change the lives of 10,000 children this year who might otherwise risk getting lost in the system. But we must actively look for them because they are hiding from us. Once we do that and push them on the right path, the rest will be much easier for them.

As St Teresa of Calcutta wisely said: “If you want to change the world, start from your home.”

Teachers are the architects of society and the classroom is their construction site. By taking small, intentional steps, we can break the cycle of learned helplessness and set our children on a path to success, thereby creating a ripple effect that will benefit society.

We owe it to every child to help them reach their full potential.

As we prepare for the new academic year, let’s commit to breaking down the invisible barriers of learned helplessness. Let’s do this, one child at a time!