My biggest challenge as a first year teacher was not classroom management. It was not keeping up with lesson planning or grading.
My biggest challenge was not responding to questions and complaints from parents or staying cheerful at long faculty meetings.
No, my biggest challenge was encouraging my students to think — what educators these days call developing a growth mindset.
As someone who loves making kids happy and comfortable in the classroom — and someone who has never been shy about sharing what she knows, it is hard to describe how difficult it was to bite my tongue and not immediately reply when students demanded:
“Just TELL us the answer!”
And, my favorite from the last week of school, “FIX THIS!” when a capable eighth grader’s Google Slides project went haywire.
It would have been an easy way to keep stress levels down in my classroom. Just provide the answer (or fix the problem on the computer screen) every time a student struggled. But that’s not in a student’s best interest.
Learning is a struggle — but a good one
Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset and presented arguments for praising students who make the struggle to learn in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
She encourages parents and teachers to praise students when they work hard and ask them how they feel about themselves afterward.
The idea is to help students value the process of learning and feel good about themselves when they have figured out something on their own — not just memorized correct answers from a textbook.
As a world language teacher, I wanted to students to value the process of figuring out new words in Spanish based on vocabulary they already knew in Spanish and in English. I also wanted them to feel good about being able to create new sentences in Spanish with rules they had learned about nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations.
At the start of the school year, I discovered I had my work cut out for me. Students wanted to memorize passages from the textbook and phrases that I wrote on the board. They wanted those exact passages and phrases to appear on quizzes and tests.
“WHAT?? We didn’t learn this!” I heard over and over. No, I would say. You did not have that exact sentence but you learned something similar. Apply what you know.
As I said. It was hard not to just break down and just tell students the answers. All of the kids I taught were smart and adorable. I wanted them to like me and like my class.
Learning how to learn a world language
I had to continually remind myself that learning to think about how to learn Spanish would benefit them more than an immediate A on a quiz.
I wasn’t successful getting all of my students to embrace the passion for learning how to learn a world language. But I know I reached many of them.
More than 90 percent of the eighth graders I taught scored well enough on an end-of-year exam to earn a credit for Spanish 1-2 — a class ninth graders normally take the first year of high school.
I feel like I scored big too. I will be starting a new job at a magnet traditional public school in July. I look forward to teaching the growth mindset at my new school.