For the last 9 years, I have been living proof that dreams come true. Once I decided to become an educator, all I would do is picture my ideal classroom, inspiring kids and motivating them to learn. For any new teacher, the excitement to begin our futures is so powerful; I wanted to bottle that up and keep it forever. However, the first year was all about survival. I devoted every waking moment to my job because that’s what I always thought “good teachers do.” I was like the Energizer Bunny; I never stopped planning, grading, copying, (did I mention grading?), etc. It wasn’t until 3 years in that I realized that teaching was different than what I thought it would be. I still loved everything about being in the classroom (okay, maybe not the paperwork), but I still felt that something was missing.
I poured through a plethora of professional books and signed up for every type of professional development out there. While I was (and still am) appreciative for the feedback from colleagues and leaders in my district, I couldn’t get that image out of my head – the one where my hypothetical students were smiling, learning, and coming back to tell me all of the lessons they learned in my classroom. I was convinced those “lessons” in my dream classroom had nothing to do with participial phrases or thesis statements. Desperate to fulfill my vision, I did something I had never done formally before. I began to reflect on my own performance as a teacher.
Some things that came to mind were;
What do I want students to gain from being in my class?
How can I connect with every student?
Was I doing enough to ensure my students felt safe to take academic risks in my classroom?
Would I want to be a student in my class?
Am I the kind of teacher I would want for my own children?
As the years went on, I continued to ask myself those questions constantly. I saw a difference once I was open to growing and changing to fit the needs of my students. The connections I had with my students strengthened, as did the confidence I had in my classroom and willingness to accept constructive feedback from my colleagues and administrators. However, my teaching assignment changed, and now, I was up against high school students a.k.a teenagers.
Quickly, I learned that my motivational “talks” and individual conversations with kids were not enough to keep their attention and frankly, I was doing all of the work. That also meant I was doing all of the learning, and I was NOT okay with that. I remembered seeing something on Twitter about “Growth Mindset,” so I decided to give it a whirl. I put together a fun presentation, had my students reflect on their mindsets and even create motivational posters for my classroom. They became involved in their learning in a way that I had never experienced or expected.
I knew this wasn’t something I would only do at the beginning of the year. Shifting a mindset is a continuous process; It can be difficult, frustrating, and make you question every single choice you make. For most adolescents, this is something they don’t do, or don’t know HOW to do. This year, I have had a tough time lighting a fire in my students the first semester. No matter what I did, I felt as if my students were just going through the motions. I took our “Growth Mindset” further by having them check their own progress. I created a simple 5 question survey that would help me target the real issues my students were up against
The questions weren’t rocket science, but they were the questions I wanted to ask each and every student. After all, they were questions I ask myself all the time! That is when it hit me. How many chances do I give my kids to be involved in their own learning? Shouldn’t they have a voice, a chance to explore and identify what causes them to be successful or not? Shouldn’t they have a place to figure these things out in a safe environment, free from judgement, rather than for them to be left to fend for themselves? Shouldn’t I be the one to model this openly for them?
One of the reasons I became a teacher was because I fully believe that what we do in the classroom transcends far beyond the mere 187 days we spend together. It is my purpose. Yes, I am passionate about learning, about reading and writing, etc., but my #1 priority will always be on valuing who my students are. Being able to show them that their progress (or lack of) is controlled by the choices they make, and that I truly care about the people they are becoming helps clear the way for them to take ownership of their learning. Once they see that their needs matter to me and they are encouraged to share them, they become open to change. They begin to see their obstacles as opportunities for growth.
Shana Karnes recently wrote about the power of conversation. She expressed that,
“Speaking and listening are much more than just standards for us to cover – they are the tools our students need to change themselves and the world for the better.”
I wholeheartedly agree. However, this doesn’t only apply to students. As educators, we should be the ones to model our own growth mindsets. Our students need to know that these conversations aren’t just one-sided; they have a voice, and how they choose to use it will help define who they are. We just have to give them a chance to do that. More importantly, we are the ones who need to be willing to listen.
What are some ways you encourage growth mindsets and reflection in your classroom?
Gena Mendoza is a proud wife, mom of two little princesses, and teacher of high school English. Her students are well educated in the fine art of disinfecting their hands when they enter her classroom and appreciate her aversion to fluorescent lighting. She is an excellent re-tweeter and is currently working on her goal of reading 50 books by the end of the school year! Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mrs_mendoza3.