Meet the Teacher Night 2016: Embracing a Growth Mindset

Middle school is a marvelous, messy, magical time. Students enter fifth grade as children and they leave eighth grade as confident young adults. And during this period of profound growth, they spend a lot of time exploring who they are and who they want to become. Part of our job as middle school educators is to help them see possibilities in themselves and embrace their potential. 

One of my favorite books in all the world is The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews. I first read it as a fifth grader, and my old tattered copy, held together by masking tape, now rests on my children’s bookshelf.

It’s a story about three children who, with the help of a teacher – in this case, a Nobel-prize winning geneticist — discover a new way of looking at the world. He challenges them to open their eyes and their minds. At one point, he says:

Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up? Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn’t notice.

And when the children do finally open their eyes – when they learn to embrace their creativity and their potential – they discover a passage that leads to a magical place called Whangdoodle Land.  Unlike many stories, where characters stumble upon a magical portal effortlessly, discovering the door to Whangdoodle Land requires hard work, tenacity, commitment, a belief in one’s self and, most importantly, an open mind.  

Just like the teacher in this book, the teachers here at Trinity Valley School know that if we can help kids develop perseverance, resilience, confidence, and an expansive imagination, we will help them find and open doorways that are equally magical.

When Julie Andrews wrote this book in 1974, in many ways she anticipated the work of renowned researcher Carol Dweck, who coined the term “growth mindset” 30 years later. How our children approach their work – how they view their own ability to grow and learn – is as fundamental to their success as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Let me explain a bit more about what we mean by “growth mindset.”

Teachers will tell you that one of the highlights of their job is watching a student, who once struggled to speak up in fifth grade, confidently stand on stage and deliver lines in a play four years later.  

It is not a surprise to us when children grow, surpass their previous limits, and discover hidden talents. It’s a delight – but it is not a surprise.

But sometimes it is a surprise to the students themselves.

Why? Children often develop ideas about who they are and what they are good at – and what they are not good at. When they encounter something new or challenging, doubts may occupy their thoughts. And sometimes they decide that if they are not good at something RIGHT NOW, then perhaps they will never be good at it. In education, we call this a “fixed mindset.” That’s when students view intelligence as a fixed trait – something they cannot change, no matter how hard they try.

A student with a fixed mindset might look at a peer and say, “She’s the type of person who is good at math, and I’m not” or “He is a great artist – that will never be me.” A fixed mindset makes it hard for students to persevere when they encounter challenges, because they doubt their own ability to grow and learn. They shut the door to certain possibilities.

But there’s another way to look at the brain and our potential.  A “growth mindset” views intelligence as malleable and responsive to effort. Children who have a growth mindset believe that, with practice and perseverance, they will eventually master a skill that presently eludes them. Study after study indicates that students who adopt a growth mindset thrive on challenges, respond with resilience, and view failure as part of the learning process. It’s a hopeful mindset, grounded in the belief that that the door to self-improvement is always open.

Here’s what’s so heartening about growth mindset research: people can change their mindset. They can reframe how they view themselves and their potential. And parents and teachers play a pivotal role in helping children see themselves as a beautiful work in progress.

The language we use with children really matters. We can acknowledge their hard work, even if that work doesn’t result in a perfect score on a test. We can help them connect the dots between their effort and their mastery of new skills. We can point out specific ways that we have seen them grow and mature – and celebrate moments where they bounce back, try again, experiment with a new form of problem-solving, or respond to a difficult situation with grace.

At some point your child may come to you, frustrated with an assignment, and say, “I can’t do it!”  Our job is to remind them that the brain is a muscle.  It grows with effort. For moments like this one, I’d like to give you a powerful tool –  one word that might help your child open the door again: yet.

So if your child says, “I can’t do it,” reframe the sentiment:

“You can’t do it . . . yet.”

The word “yet” helps children see themselves on a learning curve. Their current struggles aren’t final; they are momentary. Just because they can’t do something yet, doesn’t mean they won’t get it in time. That’s powerful for kids of all ages.

Here’s something you should know about Trinity Valley Middle School: Every teacher in this room approaches their work with a growth mindset. We don’t expect every child to “get it” the first time, or the second, or the third. We work with them for as long as it takes. We always keep the door open for them.

Over a decade ago, as an English teacher, I worked with a seventh grader who just knew that he was not a writer. In fact, this certainty paralyzed him initially. When the first paper of the year was due, he had barely written a word.

His mom responded in just the right way. She didn’t panic. She didn’t line up a series of tutors. She didn’t assume he was lazy or incapable. She sent him to talk with me after school. She trusted that I would help him –  just like every teacher here would do for your child.

I remember that he had tears in his eyes that afternoon, because writing was such a source of anxiety for him. We set up a plan to meet weekly before school to work together. It was slow work. It was hard work. He struggled with thesis statements and sequencing his ideas. He struggled with proofreading. But his parents and I were all in his corner, recognizing his effort and his progress. And month by month his skills improved and his mindset shifted. He began to talk about himself differently. He found his voice. We helped him open the door to the possibility that he could become a writer.

Last month, out of the blue, I received an email from this boy’s mom. He’s not such a boy anymore – he just graduated from one of the top law schools in the country. And do you know what his side job was? He taught freshman composition to incoming college students. He taught them how to write.

Each one of you looks at your child and sees a world of possibility. So do these teachers. We know that there is nothing “fixed” about your child. We know that their capacity for “growth” is limitless, and we are honored to be their guide as they forge creative pathways and discover magical doorways. Tonight, as you get to know your child’s teachers a little better, I know you are in for a treat. This faculty loves children, and they are particularly skilled at helping children unlock their potential.

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