Andrew Pillow used to think it was his job to disabuse students of the notion that they would grow up to be professional athletes. Some of his colleagues would sound an encouraging note and also urge the middle-schoolers to have “a back-up plan,” but Pillow felt a responsibility to let them know they had little chance of playing basketball in the NBA or football in the NFL.

Nine years into the job, Pillow, who teaches at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle school,  now considers this approach a mistake. “I believed in keeping it real — and I probably kept it too real,” he said onstage at a recent story slam event. 

Teaching means showing students what’s possible, not convincing them what’s impossible, Pillow said, noting, “Crushing their dreams, even if there is a little truth in it, doesn’t get you anywhere.” 

Here’s what else Pillow had to say at the story slam, which focused on educators’ first year in the classroom. Teachers Lounge Indy and Chalkbeat Indiana sponsored the event, which was held at IUPUI.

A lot of people like to show kids the real world too soon, and you lose something. I’ve taught four grades. In fifth, you ask: How many of you consider yourselves to be athletes? They’ll all raise their hands. How many of you consider yourselves artists? They’ll all raise their hands. … The more grades I go up and ask those questions, the more they start to specialize. The amount of people who identify as an artist goes down. The amount of people who identify as an athlete goes down. But they could technically be those things. And I realized it’s school that makes them feel like they have to specialize. That’s not a lesson that life taught them. That’s a lesson that I taught them…

The first group of kids that I taught are now college students. And one of them had a big old growth spurt, ended up being 6’5, and is playing Division I basketball. And I definitely told him and his entire class that none of them were ever going to be hoopers. Life has a funny way of teaching you things. Keep in mind: You’re doing more than teaching them arithmetic or social studies or whatever you’re supposed to be teaching them. You’re teaching them what their possibilities can be in life, and that’s your responsibility, too. When they close off those possibilities to themselves, you’ll find all the sudden your class gets more difficult to manage. 

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