Attitude Is Everything

Brent Sass showing his positive attitude, despite the cold conditions, 2020. Photo Credit: Iditarod

It’s hard to believe “All Sass September” is almost over! This means teachers everywhere deserve a pat on the back for making it through those first weeks of school. We’ve tackled tears and tantrums alongside routines and expectations, all while staying cool, calm, and collected (on the outside at least). The initial hurdles have been cleared and now we can dig into curriculum and content. Last month I referenced the NYS Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CR-SE) Framework. This month I’d like to look at one of the pillars of CR-SE: “fostering high expectations and rigorous instruction.” How do we help students meet these high expectations and challenge themselves to excel?  Start with a simple bit of advice from 2022 Iditarod Champion Brent Sass: “Attitude is everything.” 

Sass, smiling to the finish as Champion of the the 2022 Iditarod. Photo Credit: Iditarod

The CR-SE Framework calls students to “challenge themselves to do more than what feels academically comfortable, develop tools for persevering in difficult situations, take pride in their work, collaborate with a group while balancing individual responsibility, and perhaps the most important, develop the mindset that having high expectations means caring about more than just a grade, but also personal growth and character development” (CR-SE, page 21). The first step in achieving these lofty goals is to establish the right mindset. Attitude is everything. A positive outlook from the beginning will make all the difference in how a student perceives a difficult academic task. According to Brent Sass, a positive attitude is the number one quality for success, and the most important requirement he looks for when hiring a dog handler.  

Handlers guide Kristin Bacon’s team to the starting line. Photo Credit: Terrie Hanke

Sam at 17th-Dog Kennel – Handlers love the dogs! Photo Credit: Iditarod

“You need someone that has a really good attitude, a really positive attitude, willing to just jump in to do anything,” Sass said.  He went on to share that although he could create a 30 page list of qualifications no matter how skilled a handler is, if they don’t have a positive, can-do attitude they won’t be successful. “If someone has a good attitude, is willing to learn, to jump right in, and adapt to the different things we run into out here [at Wild and Free Mushing] that is really what I’m looking for.” For students that means looking at new content and tackling it with enthusiasm.  It doesn’t mean that it will always be easy. Learning new things – mushing dogs or high school physics – rarely comes without effort.  However, it can be more enjoyable, a discovery instead of a chore, when you come to the task with a positive attitude and desire to meet the challenge head on!

In addition to positivity, “Attitude is everything” includes being receptive to learning new things.  “You have to be really willing to learn, and that goes along with everything in life as well as with dogs. There isn’t a day, a minute, that goes by when you’re around the dogs that you’re not learning something new. Having an openness to learn and willingness to just jump into any task.” Cultivating open-mindedness is essential for learners who put up walls before even trying, claiming “I just don’t like math” or “I hate reading”. Take the lead from Sass and reframe the perspective!  Encourage students to be open to learning, even if they’ve struggled in the past.  They may discover content they never expected to enjoy or success in skill areas they never imagined excelling in. 

Sass sports his motto, “Attitude is Everything.” Photo Credit: Terrie Hanke

Brent Sass summed up his philosophy of “Attitude is everything” (which he has tattooed on his arm) by saying this, “I can train anyone to be a dog handler if they have a good attitude, and a good work ethic, and they want to be here.” This quote stuck with me as a teacher, because with a few word substitutions – I can teach students if they have a good attitude, and a good work ethic, and they want to be here – it applies to my classroom and my teaching philosophy.  The challenge is on me to model a positive, can-do attitude, to encourage my students to reach for those high expectations, to help them persevere when it gets tough, and to make my classroom a place they want to be. Attitude is everything. When students believe they can do hard things, when they show determination, and when they strive to be the best learners they can be, we have a classroom full of champions!

Library Learnings: One of my favorite dog sledding stories is Big Enough Anna by Pam Flowers. In this true story Anna, the littlest dog of her litter, helps her musher become the first woman to cross the North American Arctic alone. Anna makes up for her small size by working hard and never quitting, qualities that students can emulate when faced with difficult assignments!