Growth Mindset about Teaching

When I discovered the term “growth mindset” in 2013 from Jo Boaler’s How to Learn Math Course, it was a revelation. I loved the way they talked about having a growth mindset about some things, but not others. And I realized that growing up, I always had a growth mindset about art and sports (I knew I needed to practice in order to get better), as well as my guitar (I knew I needed to practice to improve!), and even my writing (I knew I could improve with editing and practice because my mom, the editor, had shown me how). But there were other things that I had a very fixed mindset about: I am not a good singer (I don’t even do karaoke because I’m that embarrassed and that bad!), but I never thought I could improve (now I know if I took voice lessons, I probably could improve, but it’s not my priority!). I also had a fixed mindset about reading, even though it was something I was good at – I just thought I was good at it because my mom got me interested in reading early and read with me constantly (and is a big reader herself); I never thought about it as improving. I also realize now that I had a bit of a fixed mindset about math – the reason I left engineering (as I mentioned previously) was in part due to my struggles in my higher levels of math class – which I assumed meant I wasn’t cut out for that subject area, but now I realize I just didn’t have the study skills I needed.

Which brings me to the title of my post: teaching. I think this country has a fixed mindset about teacher – “they’re born, not made!” We expect people who are passionate about education to be naturally good teachers, and for it to just “come naturally” or they’re not cut out for it. Further, the types of things that are taught (or at least, the things that were taught in my grad school program) don’t fully prepare you for the act of teaching on your own. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that teaching is so complex, you can’t learn to do it until you’re on the job (one reason I believe a longer internship should be required – you should do two student teacher placements following one exemplary teacher for one year each). However, even the things that were taught in my grad school program, the multitude of things NOT taught and not taught well are surprising.

For example, and this seems to be the biggest glaring factor, I never learned how to properly lesson plan in grad school. Perhaps it was because my professor was incompetent or perhaps it was because he didn’t know how to teach it himself, but the way we were “taught” to write lesson plans involved basically being told “these are the parts of a lesson plan, and you shouldn’t be lecturing the students” (where the parts were things like the Objective, the Do Now, the mini-lesson, the independent practice, etc.). I remember him being incredibly mean to my friend who had submitted a lesson plan that was really a very detailed explanation of a mathematical concept (more like a lecture script or a paper), and my friend saying, “Well, you didn’t teach me how to write a lesson plan! I didn’t know where to begin, so I just wrote down everything I thought was important to know about this topic.”

My first year teaching, I remember struggling so much and having nowhere to turn, as most of the teachers in my school were brand new – and as the only math-certified teacher in the 6th grade, I was unofficially the head of the math department! I wanted to do group work and investigations (and occasionally, I managed to!), but overall, in general, I remember being perplexed about how to teach in this fashion. Especially since half the time I had to teach myself the mathematics or find out about the “standard algorithms,” as I often did math computations in ways that made sense to me (I definitely use my number sense in calculations more than standard algorithms).

I recall a moment during my second year teaching, when my advisor from MfA was observing me teach, and she asked me some questions she considered basic about lesson planning, and I told her I didn’t feel like I’d ever been taught how to do so well, and that I would love it if she could work with me to improve on that. So one month, I sent her a lesson plan about multiplying polynomials and she tore it apart. She taught me how to work backwards to select a simpler problem to begin the lesson, and how to use patterns to deduce the laws of exponents, first with numbers, and then with variables. She showed me how to weave together the practice problems, building from simpler ideas to more complex ideas. Now, while the lesson was not the exact same as I would do it now (it would involve some turn-and-talks, and probably a “notice/wonder” about the pattern), it was definitely a much better starting place than I had been at the end of my first year of teaching.

And each year since, I’ve picked up some new skills or new pedagogical ideas. Some came from books, like the 5 Techniques for Orchestrating Successful Discussions in Math Class (which we COULD have read in a grad school class, but didn’t!), which I’ll be leading some PD around this spring for MfA. Some came from inter visitations, where I saw other teachers teaching using techniques I didn’t yet understand. Some came from Jo Boaler’s course, How to Learn Math. Some came from lurking and reading the MTBoS before I became a blogger myself. So I’ve seen myself growing dramatically in pedagogy over the years, and there are certain routines and techniques that I employ regularly now that I wish I had learned to use effectively when I was in grad school (and I teach my student teachers about!) – like notice/wonder and turn-and-talks.

Another memory I have of being a first year teacher was having the amazing Chris Emdin come in and observe my class (I was teaching math and science that year), and after one 45-minute period, he knew more about the types of behavior problems (and which kids I should be watching more closely! or engaging in a specific way) that I was facing than I did about kids I had been working with for 6 weeks. I realized then that the “teacher eyes in the back of your head” develop with time as you begin to recognize certain patterns of behavior and certain archetypes of students. Does that negate the fact that every student is an individual and unique? Not at all, but I think it helps you target certain students early in the year, when you’re still getting to know them as individuals. And it can be overwhelming, having 90 – 150 new kids to get to know in the first six weeks! Back then, I was doing too much, so I wasn’t spending enough time observing my kids and learning about who they were as students. I’ve since learned about how working memory functions as a bottle neck, and when you’re a new teacher, and you’re overly focused on your curriculum (because you don’t yet know it well), you have so little working memory left to notice that kid who’s throwing paper clips around the room (or whatever the trouble may be in your class). While I’m definitely not perfect about catching those students (particularly not at catching them in the act the first time – but much better about noticing little things, like stuff on the floor probably means someone’s throwing something, so be sure to keep scanning and looking for the motion so you can figure out who!), I’m much better at it now than I was my first year. I have strategies and techniques for figuring these things out, and while I’m sure my techniques might not work for everyone, I’m sure everyone who is successful at this has some kind of technique or strategy they use to deal with these behavioral challenges.

And so it brings me to the growth mindset I’ve developed as a teacher. My first year of teaching felt like I was tossed in the deep end without even knowing how to tread water, let alone how to swim – and I was drowning. My mom told me how much she admired me because she hadn’t even lasted 3 months in the classroom. I knew I wasn’t going to leave because MfA had paid for my grad school and if I left, I would have to pay them back. So instead, I grit my teeth and I said, I need to learn how to do this better, because I’m not leaving. I asked for help from people at MfA, I began going to as many PDs as possible, and I read books, articles, and blogs to help me with the issues I found hardest. I focused on one area at a time (first classroom management and organization of procedures and policies and routines, later content and engagement), and as I start my 7th year in the classroom this year, I’m confident that I’ve developed tremendously as a teacher. I definitely know I still have room to continue to grow (I read all of these blogs and am constantly amazed at the awesome things other people are doing, and decide to steal from them to improve my own practice!), and I definitely have skills that I’m focused on improving now (that are different from what I was focused on back then).

What I find most frustrating, quite honestly, is that many of the things I once struggled with (things that people told me, “you either have or you don’t!”) are things I’ve since developed. For example (and this is my favorite example!), my first year of teaching, one of the people observing me gave me the feedback that I used the exact same tone of voice to admonish as I did to instruct (in response to my attempts not to yell, because that was the other thing I did my first year!). My best friend (also a teacher) told me her “teacher voice” would allow her to walk into a class with students she didn’t teach who had a sub and calm them down and quiet them when they weren’t listening. Meanwhile, she told me that I didn’t have any teacher voice at all yet! I took a performance skills for teachers course, I practiced in the mirror at home, and now I’ve developed that teacher voice. I don’t deploy it with my own classes of students on a regular basis (I’ve discovered leveraging relationships is a much better technique for managing difficult behaviors), but I definitely was able to go across the hallway to a classroom with a sub teaching kids I didn’t know and get them to settle down. I was able to model for my student teacher the different ways that I use my voice now, to engage, to set the state, to excite, and to admonish.

I have a growth mindset about teaching now. I know how much I’ve improved in areas that I had no skills with my first year (and I have ideas for the next areas to focus on! Particularly the summary discussion at the close of a lesson and the number strings techniques!), and I watched my student teachers grow over the course of their time with me. What I want to know now is how do we get the whole country to have that mindset? To recognize that while it’s not easy to be a teacher, there are skills that can be both learned and taught!

I actually find it ironic that we have a fixed mindset about teaching (i.e. born, not made) given that we also seem to believe “anyone can teach.” My blog’s name is a play on the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I saw the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can teach, do more” when I was a first year teacher or so, and I found it completely inspiring (reminding myself that I would have a huge impact on the world by all the students whose lives I touch). I suppose in a way, these two ideas are complimentary: anyone can be a teacher, but only if they were born that way and have those skills intrinsically. Whereas I think anyone who has a passion can be a teacher and if you have a passion for being a teacher, then you can improve dramatically at it and be a really good one.


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