Music has always been my creative outlet. For as long as I can remember, I have been playing, singing or listening to music. In keeping with this, I take a week each summer to sing at the Berkshire Choral Festival. This year, I spent the week singing with the amazing vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

One of the pieces we performed resonated with me on more than musical level. Titled “Indaba” (which means an important meeting called by Zulu or Xhosa leaders), it begins with men chanting “Indaba, my children.” Women sing the chorus, “and no matter where in the world you should go, we are your elders, we want you to know, we believe in you.” (For a performance, click here)

This phrase struck me as being the essence of teaching.  We bring a group of students together for a four-year journey of not only intellectual exploration, but also of development and maturation.  Most, if not all, students along the way experience stretches of confusion and self-doubt.  These moments are the reflection points where growth takes hold. As the song says, “some call them obstacles, we call them stepping stones.”

Sometimes we as educators, shy away from engaging students at this juncture. Simply put, it is easier to dismiss the moment and place the burden on the students to figure it out for themselves. In my years of teaching and undergraduate administration, I believe this is exactly the time where we dare not turn away.

I am not so naïve as to believe that all we need to do is to tell struggling students, “I believe in you.” Words alone are seldom enough. Clearly our advice should include accessing resources to aid them whether the problems are of an academic, social or financial nature. Our University offers many support aids, such as tutoring, learning specialists, psychological support and financial aid emergency funds. But starting the referral with the simple phrase, “I believe in you,” serves to open up the students’ willingness to take advantage of these services.

A poignant example of the power of belief was when one student who received a poor midterm grade in my class. She was convinced this meant she would fail the class and derail her academic progression. In reality, she just needed to change her approach to the material.

“I believe you can do this work,” I told her. “You are smart, you are just approaching the issues from haphazard directions.”

I suggested that she go to the Weingarten Learning Center, Penn’s academic support service provider, to get help with managing her time better, learning to take better notes and utilizing a better study strategy. At the end of the term, her final exam was orders of magnitude better, and she very successfully passed the class.

I like to think that my words of belief in her allowed her to believe in herself. Armed with that strengthened core, she and all our students are much better equipped to change the obstacles into stepping stones.