Old dogs CAN learn new tricks!

One of the emphases of my school over the past couple of years has been to foster a ‘growth mindset’ in all school constituents, from students to teachers and staff.

Now at the end of the school year, my 3rd one here and 24th year teaching French consecutively, I can see how this new way of thinking is changing me for the better.

This is how I understand a growth mindset, in contrast to a fixed mindset:

  • a growth mindset responds to mistakes, setbacks, failures and valid correction without seeing them as threats to one’s identity.  A failure doesn’t mean I’m a failure.  Mistakes are signposts that a better way needs to be sought.
  • a fixed mindset is defensive and protective by nature.  Any criticism, slip-up, flop or disappointment in one’s performance is a threat to one’s personhood.  Setbacks trigger a fight or flight reaction as in: ‘How dare he criticize me!  Doesn’t she know who I am?’ to……I don’t need this job/project/relationship’ to…… ‘Who do I think I am to consider myself a good teacher/mom/wife/friend?’

In looking back at my life, I realize that I developed a fixed mindset early on, as soon as I grew aware at how good praise for accomplishments felt.  My earliest memory of this goes back to Miss Stone, my first grade teacher, who made a practice of paying a visit to each of her students’ homes one time in the year.  We students were not part of the visit; she came to tea to get to know the family.  But during our scheduled visit I overheard Miss Stone praising my abilities in the classroom to my mom and grandmother.  And that felt good!

My parents were as flawed as any other mom and dad: they rarely criticized me and as an only child of older parents I grew up with a unbalanced view of myself.  Add to that the trajectory initiated by Miss Stone’s early and public praise, it was no wonder that I quickly adopted my life’s modus operandi. Hard work brought external accolades, which my external identity needed to survive.

Enter the collision between identity and performance.  I’ve worked most of my adult life and can recall 3 professional setbacks. (I’ll leave the personal relationships-related crises out of this school reflection!) The first two merely strengthened my fixed mindset, but the 3rd softened me, fertilizing the ground to welcome a new way of viewing the relationship between setbacks and self worth.

Crisis # 1 came while I was serving as an army first lieutenant in Germany.  For reasons I now forget, my boss, a colonel ‘fired’ me and dispatched me from the headquarters unit where I served as a special projects officer back to a support battalion and my previous assignment as the Intelligence & Security officer.  I wallowed for a while in self-righteous indignation over what I viewed as unwarranted and arbitrary.  But as time passed, I moved on but didn’t consider that there might be a deeper message worth investigating in that ‘corrective action’.

Crisis # 2 arrived, again as a shock, when my annual evaluation took place partially into year ten of teaching French, my post-army profession.  After nothing but previous glowing reviews, my department chair wrote a very critical appraisal citing poor classroom management and an air of boredom in me! I felt humiliated and wanted to hide or quit.  My middle school principal who formed the other half of the review team prevailed upon this gal to give me a chance to redo the evaluation in the spring.  I must have made changes to ‘pass’, for I received a contract the next year. But I was wounded by the experience and my feelings for that school altered. I felt as though I was wearing a neon scarlet letter of shame, for all to see.

Scarlet Letter

Crisis # 3 had to do with some parent complaints to my current principal that really rocked my identity.  I recall the surprise I felt upon hearing them.  Again I reacted, following the familiar and well-worn groove that I had trod for years.  In order to protect the person I thought I was, someone who always does everything right, I couldn’t deal with the news of ‘failure’.

But here is what turned the tide and got me to start digging a new groove.  My school’s sincere campaign to inculcate an attitude of welcoming setbacks as signposts for growth opportunities instead of black and white labels of core worth didn’t fizzle out as happens often to new initiatives. Our middle school counselor sent out several short videos for advisory groups to view and discuss. Grade-level teachers incorporated a growth mindset as a learning objective among students. Teachers and staff read Carol Dweck’s book on mindset.  Students performed skits highlighting the differences between the two mindsets.  And even in their own self-evaluations, our middle-schoolers highlighted and pointed to evidence of their fledgling but increasing growth mindset.

It was bound to wear off on me!

I can point to 3 recent events that not only surprised me but have encouraged me, that I at nearly 59 years old can change; hence, the title of this reflection.

Two had to do with separate classroom activities: one with the 6th grade French class and the other with my 8th graders.  I can’t remember what the content of those two classes involved, but my memory is of FEELING that I bombed the classes.  In one, the activity turned out to be boring and failed to engage the kids.  And in the other, an evaluation and how I conducted it seemed to engender in some of my students the conclusion that they weren’t very good at French.  NEITHER result was acceptable.

Each of these two failures kicked off my very familiar but painful litany of:

  • You see, Maria!  You are not a good teacher.
  • If these students feel bored or incapable, they are not going to want to continue with French.
  • How hypocritical to boast in your effective methodology called TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) when what you did in this class was either boring or counter-productive!  You are a pretender who thinks she is a practitioner!

What happened next surprised and gladdened me.  In the midst of the immediate self-flagellation, sprung a fresh idea of what I could do the next day.  As my thoughts switched to a new possibility, I felt hope rising.  And some confidence to try something new.  And I did. And the plan worked, both days!  The students responded eagerly, positively and I was relieved.

Not until the 2nd happy ending occurred about 6 weeks after the first did it hit me:

  • Had I not botched those particular 40-minute classes, then I probably would not have come up with these new ideas.  Hmm.  Out of a ‘failure’ grew a new creation.  It wasn’t long before I saw that revelation as evidence of the birth of a growth mindset. I felt a tinge of pleasure.

What REALLY cemented my growing delight with this new change was unrelated to the classroom – a meltdown at home.  It came on a Friday night.  I had been out with church commitments Wednesday and Thursday evenings, not a normal occurrence.  But I had prepared myself mentally to accept that I would have no ‘Maria-time’ to read on either of those two nights.  Friday evening was a different matter.  My expectation included restorative time after dinner to sit and read to my heart’s content.

The problem was that my weekly Wednesday or Thursday grocery shopping had been pushed back to Friday, AFTER school.  And by the time my husband helped me put away the groceries, and I had prepared some lunches for the weekend, I started to fume over the dinner prep that followed.

It was all my fault.  I had no one to blame for this sequence of tasks but myself.  I was the one who had planned a stir-fry entrée, which entails a lot of chopping of fresh ingredients.  Add to that our typical fresh salad that usually accompanies our meal and I grew tight and grim.  It was 7:50 pm before we even sat down for dinner.

And I dumped on my husband, all the while apologizing and beating myself up inside.  I blew it – big time.  I had failed to meet my standard of being a healthy cook and efficient planner who also relied on God for grace in difficult situations.

The next day I texted one of my daughter-in-laws who also takes pains to cook fresh meals and understands all that goes into that commitment.  As I was sharing my disappointment in myself, some new thoughts popped into my mind.  Yes, I didn’t rely on God, but maybe there was something else I could do about how I organize my dinners on grocery shopping days.  And with that door open to looking for solutions instead of wallowing, I made some easy rearrangements:

  • like planning leftovers for those nights and
  • doubling up on some meal prep so I can have already-prepared meals in the freezer.

The next week in our advisory time with my middle school group of 7 girls, I gave a barebones outline of what I had been learning through ‘failures’ and the link to creative new ideas.  My evidence of a growing growth mindset sparked a time of sharing about how they, too, were experiencing a change in attitude and approach to setbacks.

All this to say:  I am thankful to be in a school that not only embraces new ideas, but practices what they preach.  The mindset paradigm truly is revolutionary.  The single most powerful idea that is becoming a new value for me is this:  We are NOT what we do. 

Now if only I could do a re-do on raising our two sons!  I probably inculcated a fixed mind-set in them as well!




2 thoughts on “Old dogs CAN learn new tricks!

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