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Nancy Jones taught English during my junior and senior years at Interlake High School.  When I had her she’d been teaching since the opening of the school in 1962.  My senior year was her last year at the school.  She was notoriously difficult and had a reputation for being a very tough grader.  She would regularly use words that left students (and often colleagues) scratching their heads.  This woman did not suffer fools.  I’ve been extremely privileged in my education.  I’ve been blessed with powerful educators at all levels of my formal and informal schooling.  Nancy Jones is the single greatest teacher I have ever had and I never told her.

Dear Ms. Jones,

Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching belligerent and uncooperative teenagers.  Thank you for being unwilling to accept mediocrity.  Thank you for your deep commitment to equity and equality of educational opportunity.  Thank you for never surrendering.

In my junior year of high school my motivation for quality was strictly limited to “good enough for a B” because that was the threshold for my parents leaving me alone.  (I discovered this threshold during my freshman year.)  I had a firmly established policy of putting in the absolute minimum amount of work to get a B, and by my junior year I was seriously testing the line.  To this end my pattern was to quickly write up an essay the night before it was due, turn it out without revision, and see where the grade fell.  I generally had no trouble landing in the acceptable range.  Until I hit your class.

In your class I tried this method and was met with words that changed my world: “You need to rewrite this.  I know you can do better.”  This rocked me to my core.  I’d never had a teacher hold me accountable for my best.  Good enough was always good enough and here you were telling me that I would have to work hard, and that through working hard I would improve.

Reworking that essay forced me to examine my understanding of the purpose of writing assignments.  I was firmly rooted in a fixed mindset that linked my writing ability to doing the least work and earning the highest grade.  I thought my work was excellent because I did well with little effort and you were telling me otherwise.  When you handed back the paper and made me revise it, you reminded me that the lowest acceptable level of work is one’s best work.  You also showed me, in no uncertain terms, what it really means to have high standards.

At the time I thought you were being mean.  I thought you were being a hard grader.  I thought you didn’t like me.  I didn’t realize that your insistence on nothing less than my best came from a place of unending compassion and caring.  I know now that you believe each and every human being capable of deep thinking and excellence.  I know it because you never dumbed things down.  You never lowered your standards.  You never gave in to protestation, and you, without fail, always called out students like myself who were disrespecting your class through mediocre effort.

Ms. Jones: I learned how to work hard in your class and I am forever grateful.  I learned the importance of universal respect in your class.  I learned not to suffer fools.  I cannot, at this moment, name all of the books we read in your class, (I do remember that you called me out for not having read Pride and Prejudice when I tried to skate by on another essay.) but I do remember your presence, your compassion, and your never-ending pursuit of the best in everyone.

Since your class I’ve become a social studies and AVID teacher, including three years at Interlake, and I am now mentoring novice teachers as they begin their work.  Your lessons and beliefs stay with me every day, from the continual demand for excellence, down to the specifics of how to write strong analysis.  Your legacy lives in the students’ who, like myself, are forever bettered as a result of your work.  Thank you.

With eternal gratitude,

Gabriel McCormick class of 2001

PS: No, this letter is not a rough draft.

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.

Carol Dweck’s Mindset is worth your time.  Even more so if you are (or are planning to be) a manager, friend, partner, teacher, coach, or parent.  Dweck‘s thesis is very straightforward: much of what determines your success, or lack of success, is rooted in your mindset.  More specifically: whether you have a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.”

Dweck’s overall claim (spoiler alert) is growth mindset – good, fixed mindset – bad.  This makes a certain amount of logical sense from the outset.  (Even more so if you’ve already read pieces like Outliers that focus on the amount of hard work needed for achieving true excellence.)  If you have a worldview in which you can improve and personality faults are malleable, you are better able to change your state and make positive change in your life.  When you believe that all your ability, intellect, and talent was fixed at birth, then you take on behaviors that reinforce those ideas and stunt your growth.

Dweck does not limit herself to education.  She also examines the benefits of a growth mindset in coaching, parenting, interpersonal relationships and business.  Each time the growth mindset is the clear winner through example after example.  I appreciate that Dweck chose to take an anecdotal, qualitative, approach to her work.  The mindset issue can be easily countered with examples of fixed mindset individuals who have achieved success, so a statistics-focused, quantitative, approach would soon look like Swiss cheese.  Dweck regularly reinforces that mindset is highly personal, and that changing fixed to growth mindset, while influenceable, is ultimately dependent on the individual’s desire to change.

For myself as a teacher, the most immediately useful section of the book is (no surprise) the chapter on teachers, parents, and coaches.  Dweck cites numerous qualitative examples of how the growth mindset helps those with power (teachers, parents, coaches) create success in their respective charges.  I do a lot of this already with my AVID class: my entire approach to the class is to help my students adopt a growth mindset with regards to their ability, intellect, and potential for positive change.  It was affirming to see that my theories are backed by research.  I do not, however, spend as much time explicitly discussing a growth mindset with my history classes.  I intend to change that, particularly with regard to the skill-based segments of my class: reading, writing, argumentation, and the like.

Making the growth mindset more explicit is a relatively minor change from the way I’ve been teaching so far.  The growth mindset is already present in the classroom.  We just need to name it and make the process more intentional.  The larger hurdle is disseminating the information to my peers.

Dweck’s provides many examples of the fixed mindset teacher that gives up when students do not present the desired level of ability, or the teacher who blames deficiencies on other teachers or schools. I’ve heard “they should have learned that in middle school,” or “they teach writing in English class,” enough times that I can’t count them.  I regularly hear “I’m just not good at math,” or “I love history, but I can’t write essays,” and it is a constant struggle to help students see that regardless of their current level of ability, they have the space for growth and improvement.  The rub is that helping my peers see that students benefit from a growth mindset is not enough.  In order for it to work I need to help my peers develop their own growth mindset so that they are willing to change how they teach.  Changing adults is harder than changing youth.