Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Be yourself

Reading Time: 4 minutesBy encouraging students to understand themselves, they can better define their goals and personality


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The academic year is commencing like a wave breaking along a beach, with some schools already having classes and others starting later, just settling. It is always wise at the start of a year for a student to be encouraged to spend some time getting to know themself. If a student knows who they are, they will be better able to define themselves in the context of their immediate friendship groups, peers, whole year group and school.

One thing that can be helpful for a student in furthering this self-understanding, is for them to spend some time writing a letter to themself. In the letter, which should be handwritten rather than typed, the student can write about specific things that are meaningful to them such as:

  • Their family and family relationships
  • Their friends and how they think they fit into the friendship group
  • Where they live and have lived, and what they like and also do not like, about where they live
  • Their school experience in the past, and what were three highlights and three low points that they remember
  • Their hobbies, interests and favourite music, movies, books and the people by whom they are most inspired
  • How they expect the year will go, and what they hope will happen
  • What they would like to achieve this year at school, in any activities they undertake outside of school and in their personal growth

A letter like this would take about one and half hours or more to write. This means the task would need to be broken down into three or four lots of 30 minutes. This type of approach will allow a student to reflect between writing sessions, and also to re-read what they have written and thus clarify their own thinking and expression.

If a child is encouraged to write this sort of letter to themself at the start of each year, it will provide a basis for reflection, for self-understanding and growth. It also marks important milestones as a year-to-year summary of musings and change. A once-a-year diary such as this counters the immediacy of the current age with distraction at all times within arm’s length, and begins a journey of self-reflection.



Purpose is important to life. Young people do not ask questions about purpose. Impulse acts counter to deep thinking and the domain of young people is increasingly immediate, as stated earlier. One way to help engender the importance of purpose is through teaching the importance of goal setting as a way of life.

Goal setting is an important skill. It requires the articulation of something deemed important or worthwhile, that is worth striving for. In this regard it must be relevant to the goal setter and it must be ‘owned’ by the goal setter. Goals can come from outside, but those that come from a student are more likely to be valued by them, and their realisation is more likely to carry personal meaning. Intrinsic motivators are generally more powerful than extrinsic motivators.

Goals make a person future-directed and encourage forward thinking. This means that goals focus present actions, and align and direct how time and resources are allocated. In this way, goals provide meaning to day-to-day tasks.

In order to achieve goals, students will need to allocate time and expend effort. The achievement of goals may require practice, discipline, commitment and the setting of weekly targets, or fortnightly or monthly targets. The actual goal does not matter, as the skills learnt in goal setting, and in working towards the achievement of goals, are transferrable to other aspects of life.


Self-definition and naming

When I was in Year 7, I met a friendly and intelligent girl whose name was Nadia. Her nickname was ‘Tubby’ as she was overweight. At the start of Year 8 we started off by calling her ‘Tubby’, and every time we did she corrected us and said, “My name in Nadia”. At one point she raised her voice really loudly and shouted to the group that she was Nadia. Over the course of the next few months she slimmed down, and she stayed slim throughout the next four and a half years of school. And everyone called her Nadia.

I remember her today as if her raised voice happened a few minutes ago. It was the raised voice of exasperation and self-definition. Nadia was not prepared to let anyone define her for herself. In all my learning at school, this was the most powerful lesson I learned and it did not come from a teacher, a subject, books, exams or an adult.

It is crucial that students name themselves and define themselves rather than let others name them, label them, limit them, shame them or tell them who they are or who they can be or ought to be.

Asking a student to give themselves a nickname gives insight into what they value about their own character and can also tell you what they see is important to portray to others.


A new year brings new opportunities and a chance for students to learn to shape how it will go. Reflection, goal setting and taking ownership of who they are will give them agency and power, and will help students to get the best out of themselves. Learning to self-define will mean that schooling can have a more powerful learning effect.

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Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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