Things I Learned From Buying a House #1: I Can Do It

You can do things you don’t think you can do.

For most of my adult life, I said that I didn’t want to own a house.  It was too much responsibility.  I was willing to “pay someone else’s mortgage,” as people kept describing it, if it meant that someone else had to call the plumber when the drains stopped working.

The truth was, though, I just didn’t think I could do it.  I didn’t think I could take care of everything that owning a house seemed to require: not just calling the plumber, but dealing with the bank, having the roof redone, mowing the lawn, finding an electrician, lighting the gas furnace, choosing the right insurance.

Turns out, pretty much anyone can do these things.  I have yet to learn whether I like doing these things, or at least whether owning my own house makes them worth doing.  But I can ask for advice, look up YouTube videos, and tighten bolts.  I can learn how to paint a bannister properly and how to care for a birch tree.  It’s a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I can do it.

I find myself resisting tasks.  I don’t want to put up shelves in the bathroom.  It’s too much work.  Then I realize that the work is not the problem – somewhere, buried deep, is the belief that if I put the shelves up myself, they will fall down.  My husband seems to have the same conviction about his shelf-mounting abilities.  Can we afford to hire someone to put up shelves?  No.  Sooner or later, we will have to go to YouTube and learn how to put up shelves that won’t fall down.  Until we convince ourselves that we can learn to be capable shelf-putter-uppers, my toiletries are going to sit in an ugly cardboard box on the bathroom floor.

When my students don’t do their grammar exercises, don’t turn in their essays, don’t show up for quizzes, even don’t do the required reading, it’s sometimes because they are lazy or have other things on their minds.  Sometimes, though, there’s a deeper problem: they don’t think they can do it, and I’m not showing them they can.  More and more, I find myself breaking tasks into smaller and smaller steps and having students practice example after example, not so that they can “learn” the skill better, but so that they can see, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.  I can do this.”

The problem of self-efficacy may be the biggest in education.  This is not at all the same as self-esteem – you can feel great about yourself in general while still having a nagging low-level conviction that you can’t handle certain things.  I do not suffer from low self-esteem in the least, but when it comes to re-caulking my shower, I have yet to persuade myself that I have, or can acquire, the necessary skill set.

Saying “I can’t do this” is, in many cases, what prevents us.  Now that I have the house, I have no choice.  Unfortunately, my students can’t turn to YouTube to learn how to be skillful readers, and copying an essay from the internet is not the same as learning how to write one.  That’s what teachers are for.

On that note, if anyone wants to boost my self-efficacy by teaching me how to level a concrete basement floor, you know where to find me.

Image by Lajla Borg Jensen

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12 responses

  1. I think the best approach is to just dive into things with the attitude that you may very well fail but who cares because at least you tried.

    I enjoy how you apply teaching to having the guts to perform basic tasks. The fear of failure can be pretty powerful and it a good goal to teach students to put themselves out there.

  2. I can relate to this post. There are many house repair tasks I’m just not up for and have a neighbor handy-man I’ve employed to do many things, like replacing the toilet and tiling the shower surround and put in windows and doors and so on and so on. I simply don’t have the time or energy to learn how to do everything but I also want it done and done right the first time.
    Maybe when I retire – that’s if I will have a retirement what with the ever changing laws here in MI. So discouraging!

  3. As a high school teacher, I’ve been spending the first 3-4 weeks of school attempting to build self-efficacy…the worst thing we can do as educators is develop a classroom culture where students are filled with self-doubt.

  4. I’m working with one of the language arts teachers at the school to do a partner poem as a model for our 7th grade students. One of the things I wrote in aswer to “What makes you mad?” was “People who give up before ever trying.” It’s amazing to me how many middle school students have already decided they can’t do so many things. I thought I was indestructible and amazing at everything until I turned 21 or so.

    Now the only thing I’m not sure I can do is write a publishable novel…but I’m still working on one. I refuse to be someone who uses the “I can’t” cop-out!

  5. Thanks very much for all of your comments. I agree that trying is essential, but I also agree that we have to prioritize – I don’t imagine I will ever take the time to learn to do electrical work or replace a window. I wonder if there are tasks I teach in an English class that students feel the same way about? “I don’t have the time or energy to learn how to use the past perfect correctly; there are only so many hours in the day…” I can’t say I’d entirely blame them.

  6. This was a great way to describe an issue that I think many of us address. I know I have issues with doing things when I am uncertain about the outcome, and it makes perfect sense that this is a problem for students who don’t want to turn things in. It isn’t that they don’t want to try, it is that they aren’t sure that they can do it. Just remembering that makes it easier to address it, both for giving and responding to assignments, and for getting started on my own projects. Thanks!

  7. I remember the first time I plugged in a power tool and used it myself. I was scared to death to use a miter saw because I was certain that I would cut my fingers off and that my project would end in a bloody mess. But I wanted to build the book shelf for my son’s room that I had seen in a Pottery Barn magazine even more. As a woman resolved to do “anything I set my mind to,” I had to prove to myself that I could. I am no longer intimidated by power tools. I have build garden beds, fences, and even a chicken coop. I know I can safely use tools because I have done it before. Students need to get past their initial fears. Writing may never be their favorite subject, or greatest skill, but we all have to take the first step at some point, and practice will get one nearer to perfection, maybe even to the point of achieving perfection (if there is such a thing).

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