Building Community Through Better Relationships

Learned Helplessness

The primary reason that I teach is to elevate the thinking of my students. The subject is merely a vehicle. Often, students have not because they ask not. The corollary, then, is that they ask not because they don’t believe they can. I know a student who expressed a desire to work in a local community healthcare clinic. Another student suggested that she talk to the Board President of the local community health care clinic for a referral or recommendation. That same Board President happened to be teaching the class they were taking. The first student told her advocate that the teacher would not help me and dropped the topic. The teacher was in the room during the conversation!

The barrier to opportunity was not lack of education, it was not lack of connections, nor was it lack of opportunity. The culprit was learned helplessness. She had clearly been taught that people like her do not get opportunities. And, the lesson stuck. The students may have struggled in Algebra or Business Management, but she aced Helplessness.

Ultimately, the pessimist and the optimist are both right. In this case, like most, success involved risk and the student correctly concluded that she cannot fail if she does not try. She had successfully removed risk from the formula. She and her helplessness were proven right, again. However, what if she embraced risk? Failure as a defining characteristic is a bold-faced lie. Failure is merely a statistical event. Sometimes, the answer is no. The good news is that success is also a statistical event!

Just like helplessness is learned, success can be learned! A student learning facts from a textbook typically will not recall all of them correctly on the first try. But, with additional study, practice and repetition more success is realized. Achieving success in finding a job, performing better on a test, or closing a sale all depend on study, practice and repetition. Academic learning is a metaphor to develop behaviors that lead to achievement. Grades don’t create success. Success creates success. The classroom is a place where success habits are created and results are achieved. If that process requires unlearning helplessness then let’s do that in classroom lessons, and then life lessons. That is why I teach.

Thanks D.G.

Glenn Hunter
Principal of Hunter & Beyond


November 20, 2013 - Posted by | Better Communication, Better Person | , , , , , ,


  1. […] Learned Helplessness (upliftanother1.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Teacher: What I can’t do for students |CommonCored.us | January 6, 2014 | Reply

  2. I like the insight of “learned helplessness”. I might add “self-confidence” as a key stepping stone to success. Small successes lead to the bigger successes.

    Comment by lifesolutionsnetwork | June 28, 2014 | Reply

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