Doing Hard Things at the High School

Doing Hard Things at the High School
James Quillin, High School Director

Post Oak’s High School is a place students love to be, and it is a place where parents happily bring their adolescents every day because they see the growth they experience here. But how precisely that learning happens during their hours at school may not always be obvious and may not always look the way we expect it to.

Sometimes the learning appears smooth and predictable, but other times you may see your student struggle with challenges that may take them out of their “comfort zone.” That’s because here at Post Oak we understand the value of doing hard things. Some of the “hard things” are undertaken by all of the students, and each student may find different levels of challenge in them:

  • Discussing complex topics in a seminar
  • Presenting formally in front of peers and adults
  • Managing open work time productively
  • Being away from family on school trips
  • Working together to resolve problems and issues that arise in the community

Other “hard things” are chosen by the students themselves. Students are drawn to projects that spark their imagination, engage their sense of justice, compassion, or empathy, and make a difference in the real world. The word “adolescent,” after all, means “emerging adult.” Our students have a need to become independent and a part of the adult world. They dream big, sometimes hard-to-achieve dreams, and we adults do everything we can to support them because we know that the learning will happen not so much with the completion but in the struggle to make those dreams a reality. Here are some of the hard things students have undertaken to accomplish at Post Oak:

  • Restoring a badly neglected ’71 Chevy Nova
  • Undergoing a month-long wilderness EMT training
  • Building a computer
  • Discussing the conflict in Israel and Palestine
  • Organizing a student-led trip to Singapore
  • Beautifying a run-down neighborhood park
  • Converting a combustion-engine car into an electric vehicle
  • Obtaining a certification to work with stressed animals
  • Designing a tour of five colleges in the UK

Where do students get the confidence to take on these big challenges? 

Maria Montessori observed that children naturally have a desire to do tasks that require maximum effort and that the amount of satisfaction they receive is proportional to the size of the work they undertake. Adolescents in a supportive environment retain this ambitious urge. It is our responsibility as the adults who design the learning environment to cultivate a growth mindset, protect students’ emerging identities, and promote their ability to think critically and draw their own conclusions. The psychologist Martin Seligman described what he called “learned optimism,” the mental habit of generalizing our successes and particularizing our failures. When students experience a failure, we encourage them to look for the causes of those particular failures and try again. Conversely, we celebrate successes appropriately and encourage students to build on their strengths. Most importantly, we stay out of the way and strive never to interrupt students going beyond the requirements and diving deeper! 

How can I, as a parent or guardian, help when I see my student struggling with big work?

Most importantly, model calm and reassurance. As an adult with many more years of experience, you have a perspective that your student does not. Be empathetic, and understand that they may feel frustration, anxiety, and even a sense of unfairness. Is it right that I should have to shoulder this burden? It shouldn’t be this hard, should it? Adults know that getting things done in the real world is often filled with uncertainty and takes us to the edge of our endurance. Often the obstacles to be overcome are internal and have to do with expectations. Never having experienced the pressures, uncertainties, and setbacks that come with endeavors in the adult world, students may naturally question the wisdom of persevering. Will the payoff be worth the toil and suffering? You can counsel faith because you know the benefits. Even projects that fail result in learning and open new doors. Stretching one’s limits builds capacity and resilience—the next time won’t seem so scary or so hard. The gains from experience can never be taken away. 

The knowledge that we can do hard things is a possession for life. 

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