You have to become the type of person you want to be, and that starts with proving your new identity to yourself. — James Clear in Atomic Habits

It was December 28, 2012, and I had just finished co-MCing a wedding reception for my cousin Rachel and her new husband, Dan.

The first dances were complete, and the dance floor was now open to everyone. The music was live, the crowd was jumping.

But I wasn’t out there grooving. Instead, I was grabbing a drink and meekly joining the group of dads and uncles standing at the back of the room.

Why wasn’t I out there dancing? I had lots of reasons.

I was single. Everyone else on the dance floor seemed to have a partner. I didn’t feel great about finding my way into the public love-fest only to dance alone.

I felt older than most. I mean, looking out at that dance floor, the median age appeared to be 25ish. I was a bald and ancient 33 years old. Obviously a poor fit for that scene.

Plus, my dancing skills were subpar at best. I had limited experience with dancing and wasn’t comfortable busting my lame-o moves in front of all those critical eyes.

I mean, the last thing I needed was to completely embarrass myself in front of witnesses. There were some cute girls in that crowd. No need to sabotage dating opportunities before they had a chance to materialize.

And so there I stood, sipping a beverage, talking to dads and uncles and observing the dance floor from a respectable distance.

Playing it safe. Avoiding the struggle.

Pushed to My First Win

Enter Hannah, my wonderful sister-in-law. She was having no part of my spectating. Across the room she came, on a mission to get me out to the dance floor.

It took a little convincing, but it worked. With Hannah’s urging — she wasn’t really asking — I followed her out to the dance floor.

Smiles greeted me as soon as I appeared, and I instantly started to relax. I threw down some simple moves, gingerly and self-consciously at first, and then slowly started ramping it up as the minutes and songs crept by.

Before long, I was in the thick of things, laughing and having the time of my life as I danced it up with family, cousins, and friends.

That’s me on the left … dancing my way to a changed identity!

A Small Win Paved the Way for a Change in Identity

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about what it takes to change your habits. It starts, he argues, by gradually changing your identity.

In my case, a part of me wanted to be the guy who dances at weddings. But I couldn’t get there. My fears and hesitations held me back. Instead, I lived an identity of a guy who didn’t dance at weddings.

What it takes to change that identity, Clear says, is a series of small wins. It starts with one appearance on the dance floor. Then another. Then another. Over time, I would change — not what I did or how I behaved — but who I was.

And that’s what I did. It helped, of course, that in 2014 I started dating a beautiful and amazing woman who comes absolutely alive with joy on the dance floor.

Over time, I became the guy who always dances at weddings. And birthday parties. And concerts. And other random get-togethers or celebrations. I get out there.

My moves still aren’t awesome. As my sister-in-law Elaine likes to remind me, my moves are still “classic white guy.”

But I’m okay with that, because I’ve broken the barrier. With a series of small wins, I’ve changed who I am.

I’m now the guy who dances at parties.

Identity Struggles in Our Learners: I’m Not a Coder

Sometimes I see this kind of identity struggle in my students.

I see it when we spend time on coding, for example. This year, I’ve been leading my 8th graders through an introductory Khan Academy course on Javascript. The course is beautifully laid out, with video tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and lots of room for open-ended solutions.

The WHY of Coding: Building a Growth Mindset

At the outset of our coding unit, I spend a good deal of time talking about our WHY. This course is about far more than Javascript, I explain. It’s about building the habitudes and transferable life skills that students will need wherever they enter the 21st century economy.

Computational thinking is about identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions. It’s about building the mental skills of confidence, persistence, tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to deal with open-ended problems.

I’ve taught this unit for a few years now, and in my experience most students tend to embrace the challenges of the module and engage with the problems wholeheartedly.

But without fail, the struggle of identity rears its ugly head for some students after just one or two coding sessions.

“I’m not good at this, Mr. Cavey!”

“I can’t do this!”

“This sucks!”

This isn’t the majority of students, by any means. But predictably, there are one or two or three who quickly decide that coding isn’t for them.

I’m not a coder, they believe.

Sure, a part of them would like to be whiz through the module and become a Javascript expert. But the work just feels too hard. Answers and solutions aren’t coming easily. And the fears start to set in.

I might never be able to figure this out, they think. I’ll look ridiculous. And that will confirm my worst fears about who I am.

And so the choice to quit becomes increasingly attractive. If they can get away with it, these identity strugglers will try to check out completely: go off-task, surf the web, do anything but bear down and really engage with the task at hand.

Helping Our Learners Earn Small Wins

It is here that we must shine as educators. As Hannah encouraged me and urged me onto the dance floor, we must push our students into the productive struggle. Help them get some wins, however small. Show them that they are capable. Show them the power of YET.

For some learners, they’ve embraced narratives and identities of failure for so long that it takes quite a few wins to help them believe again. To help them see that a different destiny is possible.

To take them from I’m not a coder to maybe I CAN do this. Maybe I CAN solve problems. Maybe I CAN find solutions. Wait a minute … I AM a coder!

If I can help my students get there, that’s an incredible win. Because that’s a mindset shift, a change in identity. And once they’ve tasted the thrill of victory, they may never look back.

It won’t always be possible. I think we do fellow educators a disservice when we argue that we must inspire every discouraged learner and motivate every single student. Because try as we might, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. We can’t control every variable, and that doesn’t make us failures.

But we can try. We can encourage. We can model risk-taking. And we can help our learners earn those small but critical wins.

In so doing, we can restore hope. We can alter narratives. We can change identities.

Thanks, Hannah, for pushing me out to the dance floor. You helped me earn my first win on the way to a changed identity.

And for our discouraged learners, that’s my goal too. Help them get that first win.

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