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There is No Can't

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Somebody really needs to hear this message. Please share far and wide.

Say the following statements out loud.

These kids can’t solve the problem; they already have an IEP.

These kids won’t be able to pass; they don’t even do their homework.

These kids can’t handle the text; they come to us 4 grade levels behind.

These kids? They can’t even remember to write their name on the paper.

Not these kids; they’re not cut out for it.

They’re just not motivated. They don’t want to do anything.

These kids can’t handle the challenge.

These kids can’t do it.

So many teachers, and leaders, too, feel tired, frustrated, deflated, under-valued, helpless… add your own adjective. How many times have we thought, or said – or heard our colleagues say – some variation of these statements? The frustration is real. We get it.

Now… say the statements again, aloud, but this time, close your eyes and picture yourself younger, as a student. You’re walking through the school hallway, passing by the teacher’s lounge, and you overhear one of your teachers say one or more of those statements.

Ouch. Who feels under-valued, frustrated, and helpless now?

We often we seek the empathy we’re not willing to give.

There’s something powerful about hearing ourselves speak, which brings out the underlying truth and emotion behind the statement. Frustration and despair is cyclical. Students feel the pressure to prove themselves, teachers seek to be heard, and leaders yearn to inspire change. Yet the hindrances remain, the cycle continues, and the words perpetuate, “but these kids can’t…”

There Is No Can’t: There Is Only, Where Are We Now, and Where Are We Going?

Now try this. Say the statements again (I know, yikes!), but this time, add a second statement – the first one plus this response: There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

These kids can’t do it. They can’t even remember to write their name on the paper.

There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

Some kids won’t be able to pass; they don’t even do their homework.

There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

They’re just not motivated. They don’t want to do anything.

There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

They can’t handle the challenge; they’re not cut out for it; they’re just not that type of kid.

There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

Now you try.

These kids can’t… [fill in the blank with your own situation]

Now add the response.

There is no can’t. There is only, Where are we now, and where are we going?

How does it feel now? Hopefully empowering – to both teachers AND students. We literally have the power to shift the atmosphere, shift the learning environment, and shift our mindsets – with words. Simple enough, right? Well, some say we need to acknowledge reality; others say it’s important to diagnose, pre-assess, and formatively assess; still others say actions speak louder than words. All these are correct, but it goes much deeper. There is an inherent problem with the word “can’t.” It’s a hindrance. Some educators use growth mindset as an excuse to transfer the deficit onto students by recognizing the fixed mindset in their students, but not in themselves. Others use their experience as a predictor, neglecting to diagnose or pre-assess at all, but rather, lumping students into categories they have seen in the past, as if kids were a statistical sample and not human beings with dreams, passions, and wills of their own. It is these pervasive practices that we are confronting. We need to go beyond growth mindset and remove the hindrances. Stay with me.

It's Deeper than Growth Mindset: Removing the Hindrances

This almost-too-simple strategy is not about word games or quick wit. I’m not interested in the games we play in education. The vocabulary words in our field have debilitated far too many students, families, teachers, and educational leaders already. We – referring to the broader field and education community at-large, as a local and global system – are so good at labeling kids for what they can’t do or what we fear they won’t be able to do. Don’t believe me? How about a few examples: “at-risk,” “learning disorder,” “achievement gaps,” “learning loss,” “special needs,” “learning disability,” “below grade-level,” “under-performing,” “under-privileged,” “under-represented,” etc. Even the labels that attempt to lift up those who are marginalized isolate them for having been marginalized and sound like they’re still in the margins. How often do we acknowledge what students CAN do, or verbalize what we BELIEVE they WILL do or WILL be able to do, or better yet, affirm WHO we know they ARE as people? Instead, students are regarded as the sum of a list of qualifications and numbers stacked up on a report card, transcript, or resume.

What would happen if we were to simply remove the labels? Seriously. What if we were to remove the labels, and instead, affirm, edify, build up, encourage, and strengthen students to reach, achieve, strive, grow, learn, and flourish? What if we called students by their names instead of their categories? What if we spoke to them in terms of the potential we see deep inside of them, rather than the deficits that showed up when they performed on a test? A flower is still a flower, even though it starts as a seed, but we don’t call it a little brown pellet; we call it what it is and what it was born to become - a rose, a tulip, a hyacinth. What if we could see and call out the potential for students to become “visionaries,” “leaders,” “supporters”, “designers,” “facilitators,” “achievers,” or “champions,” rather than “struggling” or “disadvantaged”? What if we could see the flower rather than looking at the seed? I’ll tell you exactly what would, and what WILL happen. The same students – the ones we thought “couldn’t,” about whom we said “they can’t,” whom we thought “would never be able to,” which were grouped into a different group/level/category/label with other kids who also “can’t or couldn’t” according to our measurements, not theirs – those same flowers WILL reach, achieve, strive, grow, learn, flourish, and bloom. Guaranteed. You heard it here. I dare you to try it and call me if it doesn’t happen. Hmmm... The phone isn’t ringing. Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Ok, so the strategy is to remove the labels and add on the statement, “There is no can’t; there is only where are we now and where are we going.” That’s it? Well, almost. There is one more critical part, the hardest part, the part that may feel almost impossible – changing our mindset. We have to believe it.

Our words are the outgrowth of our beliefs, which stem from deep within our minds and hearts.

What “These Kids Can’t” Really Means

Now, let’s travel down the road that leads to “can’t,” scary though it be may be, for just a moment.

“These kids can’t” actually means…

  • I’m so sure they can’t, that I don’t need to doublecheck, which means…

  • I didn’t consider any other possibility, which means…

  • I don’t really believe they can, which means…

  • Regardless of whether they can or not, I don’t even know if they want to, which means…

  • I’m don’t care whether they think they can or whether they might want to, which means…

  • I’ve predetermined their future, which means…

  • I’m not invested in their success, which means…

  • I’ve just hindered another human being’s potential to move forward.

Double ouch. How would we feel if someone did that to us? Right. We would most likely feel hurt, insulted, or even betrayed. We might resent the fact that someone else decided what we could or could not do. And as a growing, wide-eyed, hopeful-but-naïve young person trying to find our way in this world (as we’ve all been, but how easily we forget), we might even start to hate that teacher and grudgingly go to class, if we even decide to show up at all. (Side note – And we wonder why kids don’t behave in school? A conversation for another time…)

Now... no one, no educator wakes up in the morning thinking, I'm going to hinder someone's future today. Of course not! Nobody consciously thinks this way. Educators are transforming the lives of young people each and every day with love and affirmation, discipling and direction. But it is our deepest innermost thoughts, which we may not even realize we have, when they stem from the emotions and frustrations of our heart, that hurt the most. It is because I deeply cherish and honor educators that we are confronting these truths together, with love and humility, equipping ourselves toward a better way. This is why I have always said, and truly believe, that educators are the most important people & careers in the world second to parenting. We have the power to build up or tear down with one sentence, a word, or even a single thought. As great a privilege, ours is an even greater responsibility.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21)

The words “these kids can’t…” are a reflection of the belief that they can’t, which is actually a prognosis of death. In the moment we think it, we pronounce a death sentence on students' futures. Now the real question becomes, what happens when they believe what we say or think about them – when students start to believe that they, indeed, CAN'T?

What do people do when the doctor speaks those dreadful words, “You only have 3 months…”? If they believe it, they’ll start saying their goodbyes to their loved ones and try to make the most out of their last moments. But if they don’t believe it, if they refuse to accept it, if they know, that they know, that they know, that there has to be another way, they will find a way to live. How many miracle stories have we heard? How many more thousands of scientific studies do we need, to verify the already proven power of our God-given minds? Which is easier, to speak life or to speak death? To believe in the possibility that kids can, or to think of all the things they can't or won't be able to do, and all the ways we're going to have to modify and adjust, and all the times we're going to have to slow down in order to catch them up, and all the grades they're going to have to make up, and all the times we've tried in the past and they still didn't get it or couldn't do it, and...? I'm tired just thinking about it. No, it's much easier to believe they can, to give them a chance, to see the flower rather than the seed, to know in our hearts there must be a way, to speak life.

If people can bend spoons with their minds on television talent competitions, if doctors can link organ failures and stress disorders back to the brain’s memories of past trauma and feelings of unforgiveness, and if professionals can allow mental feelings of insecurity and failure to hold ourselves back from achieving success or even dreaming about bigger opportunities, then it’s not just our words that we should fear. It’s the power of our minds – our thoughts, our beliefs, and our mindsets – that pose the greatest dangers, obstacles, and hindrances to learning.

What’s in our minds? What do we believe about student success? How often are we saying the right things – “Oh, of course, we believe all kids can learn, it’s in our school’s mission statement” – but inside, we’re thinking to ourselves, “but these kids can’t…” or “I don’t know how in the world I’m going to get them to be able to…”?

The Strategy: Shift from Doing to Going

When we use GPS to help us reach a destination, does the smartphone or computer ask, “Why are you starting at that location? You can’t complete the trip from that street.” No, GPS just gives us the directions; in fact, it typically shows us 3 alternate routes for the journey. Why? The purpose of GPS is to provide direction; it was designed that way. But our school systems were designed to value and measure performance.

This is the more profound, underlying root issue with “can’t.” In the context of determining whether I can or cannot do something, I “can’t” see where I’m going (pun intended). All I can see is what I’m supposed to be doing, and then I feel like a failure if I “can’t” do it, or worse, if my teacher doesn’t believe I can do it. Ouch, again. A more effective strategy involves shifting from doing to going. If we want to help students move toward their futures, we need to first help them see the possibilities, the horizons, the potential destinations, and the many possible avenues to reach their intentions.

There is no can’t. There is only…

  • Where are we now?

  • Where are we going?

  • Where do we want to go?

  • What can we do now?

  • What do we want to be able to do?

  • What will it take to get there?

  • How will we get there?

  • What are some possible strategies?

  • Which way do we want to go?

It's time to speak truth and life into our young people's futures. It's time to inspire, uplift, and equip a new generation of learners and leaders, with no hindrances and all possibilities. It's time to arise and take our place in the education world as encouragers of possibility, mentors of strategy, builders of future, and protectors of life. This is a rescue mission, not a movie. It's not mission impossible should you choose to accept it, it's mission possible because we're called to fulfill it.

Somebody needs to hear this message. Will you share it? Will you be the one who sinks into despair or the one who lifts up your voice on behalf of those whose educational futures have been entrusted to us? Will you be the one who voices your frustrations or the one who speaks about a horizon you believe is there, no matter how impossible it may seem here and now?

I'm reminded of Natalie Cole’s beautiful jazz rendition, “In this world of ordinary people, I’m glad there’s you…” There are some students to whom you may be the first person, the first opportunity, the first voice who has ever spoken belief, potential, and encouragement into their hearts. Be that one. Sing that song. Speak life into students’ lives. Give them the GPS routes and go on the journey alongside them. It’s their journey, not ours. There is no can't.

~ Ronit Carter, President and Lead Consultant, Learning Lens

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