A different mindset

A different mindset

When teachers care, students notice — and they learn

Esther Kook
Esther Kook


Before you know it, we will be submitting final report card grades and packing this academic school year into files and memories.

During the last days of school, teachers typically take stock and reflect upon lessons taught throughout the year, both successes and failures. When we focus on the principles of the growth mindset, described by Dr. Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset, “we learn that growth comes not just from successes, but also from failures.

While taking stock, it’s also important to acknowledge how we viewed our students. Did we evaluate and praise the process, and not just the result? Did we give them our best shot? In a 2012 study in mindset.com, “It was found that educators with a fixed mindset about students’ ability were more likely to judge students as having low potential than their growth minded counterparts.” A fixed mindset is when you feel there is no potential for growth, and failure is the end of the line. Whereas a growth mindset allows you to see possibility for learning and growth, and failure is viewed as a juncture in the process.

Remember when we were students too? Once upon a time, sitting behind desks, playing with our chewed-up pencils, we learned new information from a variety of teachers. Among those teachers there were some with fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets who impacted us daily and often profoundly.

As a student, reading and writing came naturally to me, while math was like a foreign land, and an ongoing struggle. Before educators provided multisensory methods, there I was counting on my fingers under the desk. I envied my friend Bonnie, who was breezing through her math assignments with her fingers wrapped around only her pencil and paper, as I was trying to hide my counting fingers from view.

Then came high school and algebra and a teacher I’ll never forget, but not in a good way. She strode into class each day wearing dull brown or gray shift dresses, and a don’t-mess-with-me-or-you’ll-be-sorry attitude. The floor shook when she entered the class — or was that just us? Our algebra teacher was a large-boned woman whose demeanor was utterly intimidating. Her face bore no signs of cosmetics except for a slash of harsh red lipstick, and a short no-nonsense haircut. With eagle eyes she quickly assessed who among the students met her high expectations — and good luck if you didn’t share her passion and proclivity for algebra.

Teaching just to the top of the class, she engaged only with those who caught onto the algebraic equations quickly. The students who needed repetition and some extra help, like me, were relegated to the back of the class and the back of her mind. One day, when I complained that I couldn’t see the board, she responded sharply: “You need to get glasses!”

Oh, and this teacher had a scary reputation among all the students in the school. We knew that golfing was also one of her passions, and it seemed entirely in the realm of possibility that one day she’d take one of her golf clubs and clobber us if we’d ask something stupid. So, for self-protection, I tried to stay under her radar and struggled just to pass the class to move onto geometry with my class. However, even with the help of a tutor, and friends who tried to help me to pass the final exam, algebra remained mostly a hodgepodge of equations and symbols. But, I still plugged away.

She flunked me at the end of the year because I didn’t pass the final by four points. Despite my fear of her, I returned to class in tears, to speak with her on the last day of school, after everyone had already left. But, instead of trying to help me, there was absolutely no empathy. It was like talking to a brick wall when I questioned those four points, those points that kept me from passing for the entire year.

This teacher’s steely eyes showed me that she just didn’t care. I had never met a teacher who didn’t care. Aren’t they supposed to care? Throughout the year, she demonstrated a fixed mindset with no room for growth, because she had me pegged from the beginning. My summer was filled with thoughts of having to repeat this algebra mess again next year, and I dreaded my sophomore year.

In retrospect, it sounds like a page straight out of “Beauty and the Beast.”  The following fall, Mrs. Fisher, my new algebra teacher, changed my life when she swept into the room with a completely different aura and attitude. Mrs. Fisher wore pastel-colored clothes, soft makeup, and interesting hair dos that varied from day to day. (Students notice what teachers wear.) When Mrs. Fisher spoke, it was in a sweet voice that wasn’t scary at all. I was enraptured.

Best of all, the way she taught algebra was totally different too. Mrs. Fisher focused on the whole class, and clearly didn’t favor anyone because of their mathematical skills. She wrote the equations on the board and patiently explained the operations, step by step, until we all understood. My desk was right in the middle of the classroom, and I was able to view her demonstrations easily, while feeling uninhibited about asking for repetitions. I could ask any question without fear.

Without a doubt, Mrs. Fisher demonstrated caring and a growth mindset. She believed that anyone could understand algebra, not just a select few. The learning process was as important as our test results. Because she conveyed this growth and the you-can-do-it mindset, I believed it too. It all began to come together for me. The symbols and equations made sense. X equaled Y. I got it, and without any tutoring or help. Interestingly, there were times when figuring out equations was even fun! At the end of the year, I felt more confident and earned a B as a final grade. When I went onto geometry, the confidence that Mrs. Fisher instilled in me, helped me to conquer the world of angles and parallelograms.

That is the power of great teaching!

Just the other day, I texted a friend who attended high school with me to see if she remembered my first algebra teacher after all these years. “She was a scary lady, she gave you a hard time, thankfully I escaped her,” was her quick response.

No matter what happens in life, we all recall our teachers and how they made us feel about ourselves. Perhaps that’s one of the most important lessons for teachers to remember.

Esther Kook is a reading specialist and language arts teacher. She lives in Teaneck.

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