I am a big fan of stories about people who have accomplished extraordinary feats. The majority of books, articles, and films that top my list are about their lives. Their stories inspire me, how they rose above impossible challenges and thrived. Some of my biggest inspirations include Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. These three African American women were pioneers in mathematics, engineering, and computer programming. Their contributions helped build the cyberspace world that many of our livelihoods depend on. Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector, signed up to serve in World War II as a medic. In one battle, he rescued 75 wounded men from the battlefield. What did they do to be able to lead such extraordinary lives? Was it superior intellect or special gifts? Was it positive thinking, or grit and tenacity? Was it an opportunity or emotional intelligence?
When I was first offered the class …
As an adjunct music instructor, I taught a beginning voice class a few years back. When I was first offered the class, I was hesitant to accept because I did not feel I was the most qualified. But I was not in a position where I had many, or any options to choose from, so I accepted. I quickly discovered that the real challenge would not be my ability to teach singing, but my ability to help students deal with self-doubt. In a typical beginning voice class, the primary directive is to sing. Each week, students sing in front of their peers and the instructor. For each performance, they receive feedback and a grade. Students are to perform using their individual voice, with minimal accompaniment. This means no singing with others, with recorded vocals, or to a background track set at a loud volume.
I began my quest to enlightenment.
Many say that the worst human fear is public speaking, but in my experience, it is the next worse. Although I taught breathing and articulation, I focused my efforts on dealing with stage fright. I suspected that many of my students at some point in their lives were told they couldn’t sing, or sing well for that matter. I knew that to facilitate this class successfully, I had to make a critical decision. That decision was to genuinely believe that every single student who came through my class had the capacity and potential to not only sing but sing well. I knew that if I committed myself to that belief, I would be going against the popular opinion of “You either have it or you don’t.” I knew that my biggest challenge would not be to face outside opinions but to face the inward opinions of each individual student and what they believed was possible for themselves. I began my quest to enlightenment. Then one day, it happened. I experienced a much-anticipated epiphany. During one class session, as I was delivering my typical pep talk to the class, I heard the following words in my mind:
“You don’t know you can’t.”
Quickly I wrote it on the whiteboard, then stared at it. “Is that right?” I did my best to understand what I had just written, but understanding eluded me. I don’t remember looking at my students’ faces, but I could sense that they too were trying to make sense of it. Slowly, students began to respond with various expressions that basically translated to “I think I get it, but maybe explain.” As a typical instructor, I attempted to explain the simple five-word phrase with deep insight and elaborate speech. I began by first reading it aloud, with emphasis!
- “You don’t know you can’t!”
- Well, what does that mean? Well, I, uh, I don’t know.
- I don’t know.
- Hmm. Wait, maybe that’s it. In fact, that’s precisely it! I don’t know. I really don’t know!
- Wow, what a relief for someone who is always expected to know!
I don’t know you can’t. I don’t know any of you can’t. Actually, now that I think about it, I really don’t know, despite all my years working on music degrees, my experience as a musician, teaching seemingly every music course offered by CCCs for any college that would offer me a class! I really wasn’t qualified to decide what anyone could not do. So if I am not qualified to make that decision, I dare say that neither are you! You really don’t know you can’t. You can tell yourself that you can’t, in which case you increase your chances of not, but you just really don’t know. So now what are we left with?
I began to see a change
If I don’t know I can’t, then there is the possibility that I can. And the only way to find out if I can is to do and keep doing. What’s the worst that can happen in that case? I spend my time and effort working on something I actually enjoy doing, and most likely I will get better at it the more I do it. So I am less concerned with what I can’t do because I really don’t know, and more concerned with discovering what I didn’t know I could do! After that class, I began to see a change. Progress was slow and gradual, but highly rewarding. Students began to step out and take more risks. For most, stage fright was still something they would have to battle each week. But there was more of a mindset that they were not going to allow that fear or anything else from discovering what they could do.
We must decide what we believe
As educators, we must decide what we believe about our students’ abilities. Do we believe all learners are capable? Is that belief genuine? Maybe not, but regardless we are all faced with the challenge to make a genuine decision about what we believe, and commit to that belief. I was able to commit by discovering the truth–that I really do not know what anyone cannot do, and that includes me. Another truth that I have discovered is time keeps moving forward no matter what you believe. So what do people like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Desmond Doss, and so many others throughout history have in common? I don’t know all of it, but one thing I believe that they decided to “don’t know they can’t.”