by Kristin Barton Cuthriell, M.Ed, MSW, LCSW
Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before becoming a therapist, I spent a decade in the public school system teaching elementary and middle school. I vividly remember my first experience as a professional educator. It was my senior year at Virginia Tech, and I was working as a student teacher at an inner city school in Roanoke, Virginia. One of my first responsibilities as an intern was to give my fourth grade class a spelling test. Howard, a nine-year old boy who had recently been removed from his extremely abusive home, handed in his paper with only his name at the top and numbers one through twenty written vertically down the paper. Beside each number, he had left blank where all of the spellings words were to be listed. When I showed the paper to my supervising teacher, she explained that Howard had given up hope of ever passing a test and now refused to even try.
After hearing this, I met with Howard individually and told him that I believed that he had the capability to pass a test and that I only wanted him to work on learning one word. Twenty may have been overwhelming for him, and I knew that he needed a small taste of success, even if it was only spelling one word correctly.
The next week he took the test and actually attempted about half the words. He got just one correct, the one he had been working on. Now you and I both know that getting one out of twenty correct would still earn Howard a failing grade, but this did not need to be pointed out to Howard. He had progressed! I wanted to get him to believe in himself and visualize passing the test. The only mark that I put on his paper was a big star by the word he had spelled correctly. At this point, putting an x or circling incorrect words would have discouraged him.
The next week Howard was ready to tackle two spelling words, and within several weeks he had learned to spell all twenty words. You should have seen Howard’s face when a perfect paper was returned to him. Moving forward, Howard would not need weeks to learn his spelling list. He was a bright boy, very capable of learning the words in several days just as the other kids had been doing. Howard just needed confidence. He needed to believe in himself. Baby steps helped him do that. The small successes- spelling one word correctly at a time helped him to believe in himself. Baby steps. Twenty appeared overwhelming, but one, he could conquer.
Howard said something to me that day, the day that he earned his very first one hundred percent on a spelling test. He looked at me with absolute amazement in his eyes and said, “Until today, I thought I was stupid and now I know that I am not.” I realized then that this was so much bigger than doing well on a spelling test, this little boy had changed the way he perceived himself. As long as he viewed himself as a failure, he lived up to his own expectation and failed. It had nothing to do with intelligence. And it began by learning how to spell one word.
Howard taught me an important lesson right at the beginning of my teaching career that I have carried with me while working with thousands of people over the past twenty years as either a teacher or a therapist. In order to succeed, people need to have the following:
- Hope that things can get better and improve
- Belief that they are not helpless in their situation
- Belief that they have the power to change
- Faith in taking a first step no matter how small
- Courage to do something different
- Patience while progressing without demanding perfection
We as educators, mental health professionals, coaches, trainers, supervisors, co-workers, parents, friends, sisters, brothers, and neighbors can instill hope in one another. Just having one other person believe in you creates momentum. Sometimes that is what you need to begin believing in yourself. And if you do not think that anyone out there believes in you and your potential, know that God believes in you. God knows what you are capable of, but it is you who must take action and take the first baby step toward wherever it is that you want to go. Start small and build. Let someone else know that you believe in them and their potential. It really is powerful.