Self-esteem is a word that gets bandied around so often that we forget the real importance of it. A child who lacks it doesn’t have a reason to drive themselves forward. They don’t have any armor against bullying. They don’t have a goal to keep guiding them onto productive paths. Because if you believe, in any buried room of your mind, that you are intrinsically unimportant and small, then it follows that your future is nothing but being unimportant and small, and that means that your present is useless.
It is perhaps an educator’s most important job to show students that each one of them has potential (yes, another overused word, but bear with me). Not as a vague concept–that platitude “He has great potential” helps no one. Help them each find their own particular potential. Find the engineer, the artist, the speaker, the carer.
The only way to find all of these in a school setting is if the projects you, the teacher, assign will offer enough variety that each of these types of potential can show up. A dozen consecutive essays will find you the writer and the lawyer, but leave the doctor and the architect invisible and frustrated.
Try rotating kinds of assignments often. Alternate book reports with dioramas, classroom debates with making board games based on world history. Choose one broad topic a year and let each student decide on their own how to engage with it. You’ll get everything from reverse-engineered motors to interpretive dance.
And when you strike gold, when you hit on the “Capital-P Potential” of a student, let them know what you see. Let their parents know. Get it in their permanent record, if you can. Help them never feel unimportant or small or unskilled again.