growth vs. fixed mindsets

Our faculty summer reading assignment is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

It’s the first of my summer list that I’ve read. I started here because it was a pretty easy read, and it was a good way to get rid of all the slush in my brain from grading final exams and reading for classwork.

Honestly, I think it’s a book that could be read in pieces as needed. It was extremely repetitive and the anecdotes were more tiring that explanatory.

There were two positives that I drew from the book, though.

The first was that I really understood what my parents did in raising me to be a learner. I don’t know if they consciously set out to do it or if they just did what seemed natural to them, but the entire section on how to raise growth-minded children could have been a picture of my parents. I did fairly well in school, but every time my parents were told “how smart” their daughter was, they had the same response. “Thank you, but she also works incredibly hard.” Or “thank you, but she also really enjoys challenges.” Or my favorite, “thank you, but she also has a lot of fun with [insert any subject but science].” And those things have always stuck with me. I’m definitely not afraid to try because to them and, by transfer, to me the successes became the hard work, the challenge and the fun rather than the grade.

The second part that I loved was the section about being a growth-minded teacher:

How can growth-minded teachers be so selfless, devoting untold hours to the worst students? Are they just saints? Is it reasonable to expect that everyone can become a saint? The answer is that they’re not entirely selfless. They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. About life.

Exactly. I’ve always found teaching to be somewhat of a selfish endeavor. Most times I feel I learn more than I ever teach, and I love it. I have basically made a career of experimentation and risks and endless learning. Who could really ask for more?

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mutuality

My school had the great fortune of having Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, of Homeboy Industries as the commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony. Most of his address to the graduates issued a challenge to see the world in terms of a call to kinship.

But he also told a story of Cesar Chavez, who was asked by a reporter, “These farm workers, they really love you, don’t they?”

According to Boyle’s story, Chavez responded, “the feeling is mutual.”

That was the single most important part of his address for me personally. Not three days before, I was sitting in an office with three co-workers when a student walked in to give me a goodbye hug (for the summer). When the student left, one of my fellow teachers said to me, “Your students just really love you. It’s just so apparent to everyone.”

There were nods all around the room, and I became flustered. I never know what to say to something like that. It has occurred at each of the schools I’ve worked in. I don’t really know why. I am by far not the “coolest” teacher. The pacing and assignments in my class are what I will admit–not to my students, of course–a little nuts. Yet, it happens again and again. Sometimes it’s met with resentment from the adults around me. Sometimes it’s met with actual admiration (although, I still think underserved). But all of the time, I never know what to say.

Until now.

It’s mutual.

on purpose & gratitude

This is my second year teaching at a school. It’s also the fifth school that I’ve worked at–not always as a teacher. There have been struggles with each and every job. Most of the struggles internal. For me, teaching is not just what I do. It’s who I am.

I’m a teacher. As much as I am a sister. And a daughter. And a writer.

And with all of those things, I have to do it right. Some of this means I have to do it on my terms, but a lot of it means that I need purpose.

And that’s been the greatest struggle for me in my current school. Admittedly, I was only there part-time last year at 10 hours per week. This year’s part-time status had my hours jump to about 30, but I still struggled. And this all came to a breaking point on a student retreat in which I broke down in front of the adult I was paired with for a reflection.

I just don’t know what my purpose here is.

More than any place I’ve been, I didn’t feel that my students wanted a teacher. They want grades. They want to pile up APs. They could care less what I have to say about being a citizen, a person, a friend. They don’t want lessons on expressing themselves or commanding their own voices. They just want to memorize and get an A.

In my first full-time teaching job, my mentor told me that my students would likely forget the subject I taught, but they would never forget what I taught them about being a person. And I’ve held onto that because I really believe it to be true.

The only thing that really matters to me is that my students learn to think for themselves, act with integrity and work to make the world a better place than it is. Yes, I harp about their writing skills and put them through a brutal semester-long curriculum in writing, but it’s not really about the writing. It’s about the discipline, the accomplishment, and the thought process behind it all.

Just as I had resigned myself to another a year of not understanding, the clues started to come in slowly.

Handing in a 14-page term paper, a student said, “I’ve never felt so accomplished in my life.” I didn’t know how to respond.

But the best was my course evaluations. Everyone warned me not to read them because the students would use them as a way to “get back at me”, but I had to merge the responses. And I realized that although I may not have seen it, my teaching was working. I was thrilled that in addition to “essay” and “writing”, the most common responses were “improved”, “learned”, “confident”, and “helped.”

And then I walked into my classroom on the last day and was greeted with a surprise white board full of thank yous, including this one:

Makes the ending of the year just a little bit easier.

love is…what I got.

I’m not a parent. And I hate to give advice to parents because I don’t think it’s fair to give advice about something I’ve never done.

However, for the past eight years, I’ve seen the results of parenting–both good and bad. And quite to be quite honest, by the time kids get to me (fifteen to eighteen) a lot of the work, for better or worse, is done. 

In the off chance that this might help just one kid, I just want to say tell your kids you love them. Every day. Hug them. Listen to them. 

You might think they “know” you love them because you feed them and house them, but the tears come when they admit that their mom hasn’t hugged them in two years, that they don’t know what they did wrong, and that they wish they could be “better” so their parents would love them.

I don’t think they would ever tell you. I don’t know that they could. But please know that everything you do and say or don’t do and don’t say affects them so much. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking as a teacher to hear that a beautiful young person doesn’t feel loved.

born to write?

I have always found it funny that people will agree that an athletic talent is just that–a talent. People are okay with saying that some people are born with natural abilities to run, jump and play. They will also acknowledge that training–even with the deepest of desire– will only get some people so far.

The thing that strikes me as odd is that people will argue to the death that this is not true about writing. Anyone can learn to write.

Do I agree? Yes and no. It really depends upon what type of writing we’re talking about.

I teach two standard 10th grade English classes, a Creative Writing course, and advise a Yearbook staff that lets me inject a little Journalism into my day once in a while.

So, yes. I do think anyone can learn to write–academically, that is. Academic writing is very formulaic. It is based on a set of rules, a general format, and the ability to think and analyze. It is one of my biggest pet peeves to hear a student say I’m just not good at writing. All that says to me is I just don’t want to bother to learn rules of grammar and spelling. And I really don’t want to research anything. And, more importantly, I don’t want to think about what I just read.

Do I think anyone can learn to be a journalist? Yes. That is also very formulaic. It relies more upon tenacity and quickness than anything. But when I think back to my days in college and memorizing the entire AP style book, I realize there are a host of rules there, too. The good journalists know them well. The great journalists have that “it” factor. The thing that allows them to convey humanity in a way that moves other people. That, I have to think, some people are born with.

And for the last element, can anyone write creatively? Yes, of course they can. With the same attention to structures and styles and grammar and spelling, of course anyone can write creatively. Here’s where I truly believe some people have a talent that others do not possess. Of course, they also have to work to develop it, but they start with a lot to work with.

The best writers in my English classes are those who are well-read and who work hard. They proofread. They write multiple drafts. They use a dictionary. Basically, they’ve studied and learned a skill.

But the good writers in my Creative Writing class have talent. Pure and simple. They have a creative spark and drive. They have a masterful command of their writing voice. They have ideas and stories to tell. The greater writers in this class have mastered their craft. They utilize punctuation to their advantage. They have a broad vocabulary, and they use it with ease.

They are the athlete who doesn’t need to practice, rarely shows up in the gym, but can still dunk a ball in the net without any trouble.

reading & writing

No writing. No reading.

At least that’s how it feels. Teaching high school English really means that those are all I do. I’m constantly reading. Constantly writing. I logged 10 hours of those two activities on Monday alone.

Yet, it feels like I’m not reading or writing a thing.

I did manage to squeeze in Paulo Coelho’s new novel, Aleph. But I’ve been carrying around a copy of Moneyball for at least two months now. I have read it in pieces. 15 minutes at a time. Twice a week. Waiting for cross-country practice to start. I’m dying to read The Art of Pitching, which sits on my nightstand, or any of the other books sitting there, waiting patiently to be read.

Instead, my brain is filled with novels I teach. Short stories I filter through. Texts on writing. Texts on reading. Research. Methodology.

And writing? Goodness. The sheer amount of words that have come out of me in the last three days in remarkable. A student sat today with her mouth open and said she didn’t understand how the words just come so easily. But I haven’t written in this blog in … a month? I’m not even sure.

I suppose I should be greatful that I am able to teach what I truly love. But every now and then, it would be nice to have large amounts of uninterrupted time to read and write whatever I please.

why do people pick on teachers so much?

Even though I usually try to stay away from stories like this, I knew Jon Stewart wouldn’t make me mad so I watched the clip from his show about how Fox News says teachers are overpaid. The numbers used were $50,000 salary and $38,000 of benefits.

The clips show various Fox findings that teachers work less, get paid too much, etc, etc. Things I’ve always heard from people I know. Oh, you’re so lucky school ends at 3. Oh you’re so lucky you have summers off. Oh you’re so lucky that you get winter and spring breaks. And on and on and on.

A couple of disclaimers before I continue on:

  1. I’ve never made $50,000 teaching. Ever. And I have an M.S.
  2. I don’t currently teach full-time.

So, one day after this incessant yammering on about how “lucky” I am, I took out a calculator. At the time, I was arriving at school at 6:45 in the morning and leaving at 4. I had a 25 minute lunch. So, I worked about 9 hours a day. And to all the people who would tell me they also worked nine hours a day–you also had an hour lunch in there. So, my base weekly hours were 45. Now, let’s add in the usually 6 or so hours that we tacked on to my Fridays to chaperone athletics or dances or whatever. Now, we’re at 51 (and oddly my salary is not increasing in any way). Some weekends, if I powered through everything I would do all of my grading and planning in one shot on either Saturday and Sunday in about 8-10 hours. Most weekends, I split it up into three to four hour increments. So, on a good week we’re talking 60 hours of work a week. And this is actual work–not me sitting at a computer playing on Facebook or calling people on the company line.

So, we multiply that out to the forty-two weeks a year teachers teach and that gives us 2,520 hours.

Now, your cushy little office job that probably pays $30,000 more a year than I will ever make, never has a surly teenager rolling her eyes at you, and never ever requires you take piles of work home with you, is probably 40 hours a week (I’m not even subtracting all the time you waste online). If you have 4 weeks of vacation a year that means you work 1,920 hours a year.

So, now have I not only worked 600 more hours than you in a year, I’m still getting paid less and I have horrid benefits.

So, yea….teachers should learn to sacrifice more.