No More Can’t’s, Don’t’s, And Not Goods!

This afternoon, we had a chance to discuss proportional reasoning with our instructional coach, teachers, and principals from a number of different schools. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was shared, and I think that I still need more thinking time to further reflect on the ideas. There was one comment made today though that really stuck with me, and it’s because I’ve heard this comment many times before. A teacher shared that when she gave the fraction activity to her class, some students said, “I’m not good at fractions.” How many times have we heard this comment from students?

When it comes to math, I’ve heard many students before say, “I can’t multiply,” or “I don’t know how to divide.What do we do when we hear these comments? How do we turn these “can’t’s,” “don’t’s,” and “not goods” into “can’s,” “do’s,” and “great’s?”

You see, I’m of the mindset that with the right supports in place, everybody can be successful. And I do mean “everybody.” We may not all get to the same level of success, but we can still succeed. Here’s a perfect example for you: last year, I taught Grade 6, and I was absolutely terrified about teaching the geometry unit. I struggled with geometry all the way through school, and I didn’t know how I was going to get students to understand flips, slides, and turns when I didn’t understand them myself. That’s where my teaching partner and my step-dad came to the rescue. At different times, they both sat down with me and taught me strategies that worked. I went through tons of tissue paper as I traced shapes to move them. I learned how to use a Mira that helped me see the transformations I was unable to see. I learned geometry! Better yet, by struggling through it and learning strategies that worked, I became much better at supporting my students during this unit.

There’s another part to this story. I told my students about my struggles. I explained to them that I had difficulty seeing these transformations, and I showed them what I needed to do to understand these concepts. Students learned that even teachers can struggle, but they also learned that there’s value to persevering and working through these struggles. Often we worked through problems together.

So if students tell me that they can’t, don’t, or are not good at doing something, I’m going to ask them to tell me more. Then I’m going to see what we can do to change this attitude and change the outcome. I really do believe that attitude is everything, and if students think they “can” do something, they’ll invest the time to succeed. What do you think? How do you create this positive approach to learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


11 thoughts on “No More Can’t’s, Don’t’s, And Not Goods!

  1. I LOVE that you shared with your students your struggles with geometry. I think it’s really important that students see that we have hard times and failures but we can overcome them. It’s cheesy but I always tell my students, “in grade 3 we don’t say I can’t we say I will try.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Shivonne! I share my struggles with my students all the time. I noticed last year that the first time that I admitted to my students that I struggled with understanding something was the first time that students openly admitted their struggles too. I loved that students were comfortable in doing so, as then we could work together to figure out solutions. I LOVE the line that you use with your Grade 3’s, and I may need to “borrow” it for my Grade 5’s: “In Grade 5, we don’t say I can’t. We say I will try.” 🙂 It’s perfect!


  2. I have one daughter who struggles with math and says she “can’t do math” – I always add “yet” to the statement and ask her what we can do to change that. I like the power of “yet”.
    I have another daughter who doesn’t struggle as much with math, but also says she “can’t do math.” I sometimes wonder if some students just hear others say it so much it becomes something they think they are supposed to say to fit in.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa! That’s a very interesting point. Students would definitely hear others say that they “can’t do math,” so maybe they think that this is the attitude to have. I also wonder if it’s about teaching students that struggling a bit doesn’t mean something is impossible, and that you can experience tremendous happiness by working through a problem. It’s kind of like your example with the word “yet.” Your daughter may struggle, but the fight isn’t over.

      So much to consider!

      • Aviva, I think it is absolutely about teaching students that struggle is part of the learning process. Our school had Eric Twadell for PD this fall and one of his key points was that learning can’t take place without dissonance, but it is at that point that learners often just get frustrated and give up. We have to help them get to the other side and make sure they understand the learning journey they went on so they don’t give up the next time.

        • I absolutely agree with this, Lisa! So how do we do this? Maybe part of it is in sharing our own struggles and how we’ve overcome them. Maybe part of it is with asking good questions that force students through the hurdles to the other side. Maybe part of it is with good modelling to show how to work through problems. Maybe part of it is with creating a classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing their struggles, and then working together to succeed. I’d be curious to hear what others have to say!


  3. Wow, what an amazing topic to write about! It happens all the time and you probably know about it very well, that is why you wrote this post.
    When a teacher hears this comment, he/she usually gets frustrated and starts explaining right away. Never do that! See what they can already do so that you know about what they need to learn. If a student says , ‘I don’t know fractions’, ask them if they know what a quarter, half, third etc. etc. is.
    I would expect any teacher to try that stratergy because I have been tgrough many cases where many supply teachers just hand out the worksheet. It is no help to the students, and the next day when their homeroom teacher hands out a quiz, they won’t know what to do. For me, it all depends on the teacher!

  4. Ok, I had to think about this one carefully before I could respond. First off, I applaud your honesty and transparency with your students – it certainly humanizes you for students and allows them to admit their own struggles. I really appreciate the addition of “yet” to students who are discouraged and say they can’t do something. That is a great suggestion. But here’s where I’m stuck. In our society, it seems quite commonplace for people – including teachers – to admit to students that they aren’t good at math…or French…or art (pick your subject, but math seems to be the most frequent one). Or even worse, for adults to admit they HATED a subject. This always makes me sad if this is as far they go. It gives students a wrong impression. For many students it is a lack of persistence and positive attitude that holds them back. That doesn’t mean every student will earn an A, but every student can be successful. Sharing difficulties as a teacher is a strategy, but one that must be carefully managed so that students don’t just hear “she hated/was bad at math too”. The way you explained it should encourage student learning instead of discouraging it, but care has to be taken to make sure students perceive it in a positive way. I like when students think teachers aren’t perfect, but I like it even more when they seem them as positive learners.

    • Kristi, I really appreciate your comment, and I absolutely agree with you. What I didn’t necessarily articulate well here, which I think is important to include, is that even when I shared some struggles in math, I never once indicated that I don’t like math. In fact, the opposite is quite true.

      I see a lot of value in ALWAYS remaining positive about a subject. I think it’s important to frame our comments well. So while I may have shared some difficulties, I didn’t share a dislike for the topic or subject. This is essential. To me, sharing struggles only work if we can say that, “sometimes things may be difficult, but working through the difficulties and being successful is something we can all do! Doing this feels great!” Then we need to model just this.

      Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking and also reminding me of something very important!


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