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The Phrase I Stopped Saying to Students Who Are Struggling

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I tutor — nothing professional, but I work with some students who need a little extra help after school to keep up. I love it, but as with any job, there’s some frustrating moments. Both my students and I get exasperated at times; my patience is low because I’m tired, they’ve had a rough day at school and don’t want to do homework, nobody is perfect and we all say things out of annoyance that we don’t always mean.

One afternoon at work, I was coming up with some extra math practice problems to help reinforce a concept the student had learned previously that week, and both of us were just having a rough day. I finished and handed it to her, and I said: “Here, you’ve done these before, you’ve been doing them all week. I even made them simpler than your homework so you shouldn’t’ have any trouble with these. They’re easy.”

I meant it to be encouraging, like “I made these to be easy” since I knew it was a tough concept and didn’t want her to get discouraged. She looked up at me as she took it
from me. I knew she was going to say something, and I started to ask her to just try before she could get the chance to tell me she couldn’t do it. After all, I’ve known her for years; I was used to the whole “I don’t know how” argument.

I didn’t say anything though, and her words completely changed how I thought about everything. “Yeah, maybe easy for you,” she said. “Not easy for me.”

I was honestly speechless. She just stared at me while I recomposed myself for a few seconds and said, “You’re right, I’m sorry, I made these in the hopes that they wouldn’t be as difficult as the ones you had for homework tonight, but I’ll help if you need me to.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something along the lines of, “Come on this is easy” or “You can do this, it’s simple” to students. Heck, I’m sure we’ve even said something like that to our friends, family, peers, coworkers, classmates, strangers, whoever, when we are frustrated that they can’t understand something. I say it in that
annoyed voice: “Why can’t you understand? It’s so easy!” Or other times, in response to my students or classmates, I mean it in a way to be reassuring: “This is simple, you can get it.”

I realized that day that saying things like this is actually doing more harm than good. It made me think back to some situation I vaguely remember, yet have no context for — maybe from a book or inspirational video or something — where somebody was saying how you shouldn’t tell people that “it’s easy” when you’re trying to encourage them. I hadn’t really taken that to heart until this day when I realized exactly why it’s not helpful to say these things.

Think about how you’d feel if you were struggling. What’s one thing you just have a hard time with? It could be a concept at work or school, a life skill, a personality trait you’re trying to work on, a video game, a sport, anything. For me, one thing would be
controlling my emotions. I’m a sensitive person, I cry if you cry, I cry if I’m mad, I cry if I’m happy, I cry at basically anything. Now imagine you’re in a situation where you’re already struggling with this thing that’s hard for you, and somebody says, “It’s easy, just do it.” How would you feel? Pretty annoyed, right? I know I would be; if I was in a situation where I was trying to keep my emotions in check, but somebody noticed I wasn’t being successful, and they were innocently trying to encourage me by saying, “It’s OK it’s easy,” I would be irritated. I’m already self-conscious about this because I know I’m bad at it, and telling me it’s “so easy” makes me feel like a failure, makes me feel “stupid” and incompetent.

My student is right — that thing may be easy for one person, but it’s not easy for another, and it makes him/her feel like you’re invalidating the struggle when you try to explain how easy it is. That conversation has changed the way I see people when they’re struggling. I no longer say, “It’s OK, it’s easy” when trying to help with something. Instead I’ll say, “What is it that you don’t understand?” or “How can I help?” or “It’s OK, I know it can be hard.”

Originally published: April 16, 2016
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