A Letter to My Students – Swim, Don’t Just Tread Water

Holy Family School
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

August 22, 2016

Dear Students,


Welcome to my class. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a moment to read this letter that I wrote just for you.

As we start this school year, I challenge you to look deeply into yourself. To think about what you do when the going gets tough? When your boat starts to leak and you are sinking? When you feel hopeless because the land is far, and you are just a tiny speck in a vast blue sea? I offer you this advice:

Swim and don’t just tread water.

Kick, pull and do what is necessary to move yourself forward. If the water becomes too deep, or the current too strong, trust yourself in that water. Don’t wait for someone to throw the life preserver to save you. Do your best to swim to that distant shore. Pull yourself out. Water can, at times, appear deeper than it is. Sometimes, to save yourself you simply have to stand up. Put your feet down, and push yourself up. In this way, you embrace the struggle. It is the struggle that makes you stronger. Keep swimming, and don’t you ever give up.

This year, I am going to teach you how to embrace the struggle, by teaching you to swim and to save yourself by standing up, on your own. We will, however, take no trips to the pool, have no lifeguard and flotation devices. Just you and I, and the belief that you can feel confident diving into your own learning and using your own gifts. Before you can learn to to swim, you must leave misconceptions of yourself as a learner at the classroom door. You, first and foremost, must come to trust yourself in the water.

I know what drowning feels like in a classroom. You are overwhelmed by the work. Can’t keep up. Sometimes it feels like the work can’t be done on time. It feels like the material is within sight, but slightly out of reach. Sometimes you feel like everyone is swimming and you are just stuck there treading water, slowly sinking underneath the current. It might appear that all the other swimmers are effortlessly gliding past you. It can feel hard to breathe, and sometimes you might feel you just aren’t good enough.

Know yourself.

Awareness is key to your success. I want you to not only know yourself, but to own who you are as a learner. This means addressing the jumbo “elephant in the room” – the truth we sometimes prefer to avoid rather than face.

Each of us learns in different ways and at different rates, but we all can learn everything. Some of us process information in ways that sometimes make it more challenging for us than others. By definition, you have what is called a Learning Disability. Odds are, you have been conscious of this term since your first day of school. It is the jumbo sized elephant that has travelled to school with you every day. You have carried the elephant for all these years. It shows itself in different ways, including difficulties with reading, writing and mathematics. To be honest, I love the word learning, but hate the word disability. That is why I want my greatest gift to you this year, as your teacher, is to make you face your elephant, tame it, and become a student, who is enabled to learn.

You can feel angry about it. You can feel sorry for yourself and question, “Why me?” You can hide behind that elephant, and pretend that you don’t care. But, the only way around this fact is to accept it and deal with it. Acceptance of your Learning Disability is your first step to owning who you are a learner and stepping into your own learning.

Know your supports.

You can lessen the load, by working on your needs while building upon your strengths. You can learn and succeed, given the right mindset and the right set of learning strategies. Let’s construct the idea of who you are as a learner together this year. The reality is that you are always standing in shallow water. You have what is called an Individual Education Plan with the proper supports to help you. Your IEP is a plan that enables you to stand on solid footing. It can help you regulate your own learning and become more independent in the classroom. Part of our work together will be on you better understanding this plan and what it can do for you.

The supports that help you will be ones that reflect your personal learning style and work to support your needs as a learner. Discovering and accepting who you are as a learner will be part of your journey this year.

Know how to communicate your needs appropriately.

Your own voice is, and will be, your greatest asset as a learner. Use it. The best person to explain how your brain works and what can help you learn, is yourself. On your journey, the life preservers and flotation devices will be there. But, don’t depend on them. It is important to know when to ask for help and to know that it is there. Use your own two feet to build a solid base to your own learning. Initiative, independence and self-regulation are all important for your success. Schools change, teachers change, classrooms change. You are the only constant in your own learning. Be present in your learning- all of you. The best way to speak up for yourself is to set goals. You need to know what to ask for, and why you are asking. How you seize onto opportunity, how you deal with challenge and how, ultimately, you can swim through life’s deepest water defines who you are as a person. This school year is an opportunity for you. Seize it!

Use your gifts.

You were born with tremendous gifts – we all were. These gifts are the kind that are so valuable they cannot be bought with money. Some people are born with the gifts that enable them to read, write and do math with ease. Others are born with gifts that enable them to bond closely with other people. It is up to us to build upon the gifts we have and use them for the common good. This year, I will challenge you to find those gifts, to strengthen them and to discover ways to use them to lift yourself and others up. Our gifts were also meant to serve others, for in doing so, we strengthen ourselves.

Let me tell you about something you might not already know. People who face the greatest challenges are given the greatest gift–the gift of empathy. You, having faced the learning challenges you have, are blessed with an understanding of those who struggle. Use your empathy to empower others. Get comfortable in the water, learn how to swim, and then teach others how to do the same. This year, I will show you how to use your empathy to lead others.

Be thankful for the struggle.

As crazy as it may sound, thank the waves that wash over and sometimes overwhelm you. The waves are gifts. They are your greatest teachers. Learn from your challenges, mistakes and failures. While this year we will focus on you using your strengths to push forward, we will not neglect, ignore or run away from challenges. We will face the obstacles you encounter, break them open, work with them and do our best to overcome them. That is how you will grow.

So, this year, my job, as your teacher, isn’t to make things easy for you. I am going to challenge you to think critically about yourself, your learning and the world at large. My job is to make things difficult for you. So you learn strategies that work for you. So when you enter Grade 6, you will do so with ease and confidence. My job is to replace that elephant in your backpack with tools that enable you to succeed for the rest of your life.

The truth be told, every student in your school brings a backpack weighed down by something: family issues, anxiety, the challenge to fit into the social group, or to feel accepted. We all face adversity, even teachers. It is how we deal with our elephants that matters. Success in life lies in never running away from adversity. Together we will face it, deal with it and learn lots. And you know what? I am confident we can do this. Let’s go!

Remember that, “The only person you are destined to become, is the person you decide to be.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) Be the person you truly want to become!

Together we can learn, grow and push ourselves forward.
Grade 5, the water is warm! Who is going to be the first to jump in?

I’m waiting.

See you on September 6!

Mrs. Laurie Azzi
Learning Strategies Teacher,
Grade 5,
Holy Family School,
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada