Today, my teachers were given a compliment that made me both incredibly happy and sad at the same time. You see, it was Picture Day. Picture Day is one of those things that we all have to do, but it can truly wreak havoc in an elementary school student’s need for routine and structure. They get accustomed to knowing what to expect for when, where, and how to be. When you add Picture Day, it can totally disrupt routines, especially if the picture schedule runs behind. Picture Day takes a lot of grit on everyone’s part.
Our day was also affected today by about 40 district leaders, campus administrators, and teacher leaders who were visiting our campus. Typically, my students and teachers are very used to having visitors in and out observing, but this was the first one for the year. I guess a “normal” picture day just didn’t give enough challenge so we raised the demand by adding 40 strangers to the mix on top of an altered schedule, just to really see how the students can handle change.
I do have to say that today we were lucky. No cameras broke. Everyone was on time. The schedule flowed smoothly. Students were amazing demonstrating their learning and even sharing with the adults walking through their classrooms. I am so fortunate to have a fantastic group of students and an incredible staff.
We got amazing feedback from the visitors. But as the photographers got ready to leave, they made this comment, “Your teachers are so respectful in how they speak to your students.” Wow. Well, you need to know that many years ago before I came to Degan, there were some comments to the contrary about this staff. To hear from an outsider, even outside the profession of education, how impressed they were with the staff-student interaction, was a proud moment. But as I thought more, I thought how incredibly sad it was that this photographer, who probably spends a great deal of time in schools witnessing teachers interact with their students, felt we were the exception. You would think this would just be the norm.
As I reflected more, I did think about the stress that shifts in schedules and the unexpected happenings of a school Picture Day can cause. However, as adults, we have to absorb that stress to keep it off our students. Some of our students, especially those who live in poverty, live in chaos on a daily basis. They sense the tensions of adults and react to it. Even more important is the relationships. If we are snapping at our students to deal with our stress about a situation, we are damaging our relationship with that child and limit our ability to have a positive impact on them. If we are going to treat others with respect, and model this to children, we have to show we value them all the time, not just when we have had enough sleep, the schedule and routines are in place, and everything is going our way.
But it goes even further. How do we as campus leaders, create a culture where our staff feels safe and confident, even amidst a great deal of change? That is the true key. We have to make sure everyone knows what to expect.
When staff feels confident that effort, not perfection, is the desired outcome, everyone can exhale. They will function with confidence and not be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. They can become truly comfortable with ambiguity and learn to thrive, knowing that they are valued, no matter what. When the teachers feel safe, they can make students feel safe as well, and then even Picture Day plus 40 strangers walking through classrooms aren’t an issue!
I was never good at accepting “because I said so,” as an explanation. As a child, when this was the reasoning for why I should do something, it typically resulted in arguments or lack of compliance on my part. I always wanted to know why something was expected and how it was best for me in the long run. After five years as a teacher, I even got a minor in Special Education with my diagnostician certification because I couldn’t just accept someone telling me why some students qualified for services and others didn’t. I needed to know why. As a result of my loathing for this particular combination of four words, I have made it a point to never say them as a parent or an educator.
When I began teaching, I was content to give my students a mathematical formula for volume so they could plug in numbers to find the answer. It was all I knew to do. However, after attending a training based on the work of Marilyn Burns, I found that my students were so much more successful using inquiry-based learning where they were given boxes of all different sizes to fill with cubes. Not only did they discover the formula for volume, they owned it. Now they were not determining the volume of containers because I said so, they were doing it because they completely understood what, why, and how.
Ironically, while our teaching has evolved to understand that a discovery approach develops our students thinking and problem solving abilities, we have often kept our leadership practices in the realm of “because I said so.Here is your lesson plan template “because I said so”. You need to use small group instruction, “because I said so”. Include technology, use this strategy, and don’t forget to post your objectives “because I said so.”
Recently, I realized how passionately I feel about the ineffectiveness of these words as a leadership justification. This year, as we were really delving into our teaching habits and routines, it became time to discuss a “best practice” that teachers had already implemented…posting learning objectives. Yes, I know this is best practice, but I never required this of my teachers . Many did it because someone had previously told them to do so. Some knew it was a check on our walk through documents, so they did so. Others attended training for English Language Learners and where told there to do so. The problem I had with this is that while posting learning objectives is a “best practice” and there is research to support the benefit of doing it, when teachers post objectives out of compliance, is it really any different from giving students a formula so that they can plug in numbers without understanding why or how they get the answer?
I knew it was time to discuss the issue of learning objectives but I resolved that teachers in my building would not do this out of compliance to leadership. If they were going to post the learning objectives, I wanted it to benefit students, not out of efforts to please the principal. I wanted my teachers to own the purpose of posting objectives, just as my previous students had owned using mathematical formulas.
For the past two years we had been on a journey to explore strategies of raising the higher level thinking abilities of our students. We had done this by dissecting the state standards, writing questions aligned to the proper rigor level, and implementing mental models for our students to help them transfer knowledge and develop schema. This year I explained that we were going to begin to explore how to raise the level of thinking of our students through writing objectives that integrated process skills with content standards to make sure that our learning in the classroom was dually-coded.
Almost instantly I heard the collective groan. I knew it was because they already had a negative perspective of this practice as something they had done out of compliance and not truly the purpose intended. We practiced with “manipulatives” that I had created so that they could easily lay out process skills to see which ones were the best fit for the content. As I walked around, some teams were getting the process more easily, while others struggled. I even had one of my more independently thinking teachers become quite uptight at even the mention of suggesting that they do something “mandated”. As we closed the activity, I assured teachers that I wasn’t requiring anything, but that we would continue to explore this practice and how it could benefit our students during the time allotted for our professional learning communities.
We have just finished our first round of PLC meetings and continued our conversations of posting learning objectives. As teachers expressed their anxiety, I have continued to tell them that this is not a required practice. I had one brave teacher share out that she had posted for years. However, she acknowledged that she had never referred to them in her lesson. I asked how much time she spent each day creating the objectives and writing them on the board, to which she replied a couple of minutes. Interestingly enough, if someone spends 2 minutes a day creating and posting objectives, that is just over six hours a year spent on a task that didn’t give any educational value. Six hours of time that could have been spent on something more valuable if we weren’t going to mention them during the lesson anyway.
I think that this is where we miss the boat in education. Someone somewhere attempts to get higher achievement for their students and discovers a strategy that works. That person explains the strategy to others and some research to prove its benefit. Good, right? Yes, right up until the point that we begin giving teachers the formula without letting them discover it for themselves. All to often, we mandate best practice and teachers do it out of compliance and not truly understanding the value. Teachers are typically a very compliant group of people. We want to please and we want to do it right, especially if student success is at stake so we go through the motions and hope it the next silver bullet will work.
I think it’s time to take a different approach. I’ve been in education long enough to see the pendulum swings of pedagogy. From what I have observed, often it is more about a teacher’s ability to “sell” the learning than it is about any particular strategy. Be it phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, if the teacher believes in it and can effectively use it, students learn. Certainly, we need to use research-based best practice. However, if we are going to mandate its use by everyone in school, in a district, or in a state, we need to take the time to set up the learning opportunity for teachers to discover its value and relevance so that they have a deep enough understanding of what, why and how that they can effectively implement what we are asking them to do. Remember, my students didn’t invent the formula for volume, but they discovered it for themselves and they had more buy in for its use.
As we end September, we are continuing to learn, explore, and discuss this strategy of posting learning objectives. I bring in a variety of formats and resources for them to investigate. We practice writing objectives together. Slowly, I see teachers adopting a practice that is best for them. They know what they need to do, how to do, and most importantly why. Because of that, they post objectives for their students, not for me. It makes me think about a time when my oldest son was very little. He once responded to someone who told him not to ask so many questions with “I only ask why because I need to know.” I think too often we have squashed questions out of our learners to the point they just do it and no longer ask. If we truly want to develop thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create and encourage “why?” Our students deserve more than teaching practices based upon “because I said so”.
Below is a great resource from Simon Senek on why it is important to explain the importance of “why” (and it’s not because I said so!)
I often hear people, especially educators, say “I avoid conflict”. I think this is probably because so many educators typically have a personality of working very hard to do things “right” and please other. So many see conflict as negative. However, I think avoiding conflict and seeing it as something bad is antithesis of learning. Merriam Webster defines conflict as a struggle between opposing ideas. As educators, we should embrace conflict more than most. After all, what is learning besides a mental opposing conflict that requires us to resolve new knowledge with what we have always known? Education is no longer a world of homogenous students complying with our attempts to pour in information. Because it is now about engagement of students from all different backgrounds and cultures who must buy into the learning we are trying to instill, we must all be skilled in helping our students resolve current views with new concepts for knowledge to become a part of their schema.
I will never forget in my interview for my current principal job. After arriving, I had forty-five minutes to prepare a presentation to a room of more than twenty parents, school staff members and district level administrators on my vision for the school. When the time passed, I began by presenting my vision and then answering at least twenty questions that meaningfully connected with each of these different groups. When finished, the superintendent who sat in silence examining my responses and the reactions of the group asked his question. I took a breath as he spoke, “What is cognitive dissonance and how do you know if your staff is doing it? How do you help them embrace it?” –Wait, what? I felt like I needed a dictionary or some visual supports. Where were the accommodations? Was this really the question? To buy me some time to think about this and not having a long pregnant pause and hopefully hide any look of utter confusion on my face, I asked him to repeat the question. As he asked the question again, I was able to put together “brain” and “unrest”. LEARNING! Cognitive dissonance is nothing more than conflict within your brain as you learn something new. Putting “conflict” in a context of being something positive and helping us grow and evolve definitely helps us see this struggle in a more positive light and this is what drove my response. To effectively teach learners, we must be learners ourselves. I guess I hit the mark, I got the job!
I love what Jack Canfield has to say about accepting one hundred percent accountability for your life. Often, if we are unhappy about something, it is because we aren’t taking action to change it. I would add that it is probably because we are avoiding the discomfort of conflict. We would rather keep our circumstances as they are than “confront” the issue at hand. We use excuses to say that we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable, but actually, it is really more about that we don’t know how to discuss the situation with the other person in a way without feeling that someone must win and someone must lose. It’s really that we don’t want to experience the discomfort. Think about it, when people reach the end of their rope, they have no trouble raining the conflict down on someone else. Stephen Covey’s fourth habit for highly effective people discusses seeking the Win/Win:
“Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration.
Most of us learn to base our self-worth on comparisons and competition. We think about succeeding in terms of someone else failing–that is, if I win, you lose; or if you win, I lose. Life becomes a zero-sum game. There is only so much pie to go around, and if you get a big piece, there is less for me; it’s not fair, and I’m going to make sure you don’t get anymore. We all play the game, but how much fun is it really?
Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!
A person or organization that approaches conflicts with a win-win attitude possesses three vital character traits:
Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone
Many people think in terms of either/or: either you’re nice or you’re tough. Win-win requires that you be both. It is a balancing act between courage and consideration. To go for win-win, you not only have to be empathic, but you also have to be confident. You not only have to be considerate and sensitive, you also have to be brave. To do that–to achieve that balance between courage and consideration–is the essence of real maturity and is fundamental to win-win.”
A former superintendent said that in education we don’t create products, we develop people. I believe a master of conflict knows and cares about the people they are responsible for developing enough that they want to help people to be better. I think about my sons. There is no way I wouldn’t tell my one of my children something that they needed to hear, even if it was uncomfortable. If my youngest, who just hasn’t yet become socially aware, forgets to wear deodorant, I’m going to tell him. I don’t do this to hurt his feelings, and I’m certainly going to make him aware in a kind way, but I’d rather he hear it from me than a peer.
As leaders, we have to have the same approach. We have to care about developing our teachers more than we care about our own comfort. We must be kind, sensitive, and make sure that our purpose in bringing about the tough conversation is driven by what is best for students and the individual. Letting things go unsaid isn’t good for anyone and does more to harm the relationship in the long run if resentment builds up. I think I can say that I’ve probably had more these types of conversations with more of my staff than not. I also think that in most instances, the relationships have become stronger. Being willing to go to a deep level shows real commitment to the other person. I think the key is that if people know that your intentions are just and that your end result is to help them win, not lose, they may initially feel uncomfortable or defensive, but then ultimately appreciate that you cared enough to tell them what they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.
I appreciate those people who are willing to tell me what I need to hear as well. As a leader, it does me no good if everyone blindly agrees to every idea or initiative. I like for people to speak up and speak their mind. It’s funny sometimes to watch the looks of horror around the room by the compliant. While the one speaking up may not always do it with grace or initially seeking the win/win, I alway try to recognize the individual for helping the group consider the unintended consequences of our action. So often, taking time to resolve the opposing views makes the situation go so much better in the long run. You can plan for the negatives rather than be blindsided by them in the middle of implementation.
When teams have productive conflict, it helps them to grow. Conflict helps the team:
Expose new ideas
Identify situations that are no longer best practice
Allow everyone’s ideas to be heard
Eliminate a build up of resentment
However, sometimes we need to teach our teams how to have productive conflict. We cannot just assume that everyone can effectively manage conflict in productive ways. Having conversations and discussions about conflict help everyone reveal their attitudes and fears about conflict while also discussing how it can be a positive force in team building.
Conflict is not bad. It shouldn’t be avoided. Conflict is the root of all learning and helps us to make our situations better if we rally our grit, desire to grow, and always seek the win/win by extending grace to others. Embrace the struggle to learn and improve so that you can “Keep Calm and Conflict On”!
I’ve always loved butterflies for their grace and beauty, but when I found out my name comes from the Greek meaning for “butterfly” and there is a whole genus of “brush footed” butterflies with the name Vanessa, it just created even more interest. If you have ever seen one emerge from their chrysalis, you have to respect their grit as they fight their way out.
So often we look at struggle and change as a negative thing we should avoid, but sometimes it is those very struggles that develop us into the person that we are supposed to become. I love this story about the struggle of the butterfly:
One day, a man saw a cocoon. He loved butterflies and had a craze for its wonderful combination of colors. In fact, he used to spend a lot of time around butterflies. He knew how a butterfly would struggle to transform from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful one. He saw a cocoon with tiny opening. It meant that the butterfly was trying to make its way to enjoy its world. He decided to sit over and watch how the butterfly would come out of the cocoon. He was watching the butterfly struggling to break the shell for several hours. He spent almost more than 10 hours with the cocoon and the butterfly. The butterfly had been struggling very hard for hours to come out through the tiny opening.
Unfortunately, even after continuous attempts for several hours, there was no progress. It seemed that the butterfly tried its best and could not give any more try.
The man, who had a passion and love for butterflies decided to help the butterfly. He got a pair of scissors and tweaked the cocoon to make larger opening for the butterfly and removed the remaining cocoon. The butterfly emerged without any struggle! Unfortunately, the butterfly looked no longer beautiful and had a swollen body with small and withered wings. The man was happy that he made the butterfly come out of the cocoon without any more struggles. He continued to watch the butterfly and he was quite eager to watch the butterfly fly with its beautiful wings.
He thought that at any time, the butterfly might expand the wings, shrink the body and the wings could support the body. Unfortunately, neither the wings expanded or enlarged nor the swollen body reduced.
Unfortunately, the butterfly just crawled around with withered wings and huge body. It was never able to fly all through its life. Although the man did it with good intention, only going through the struggles the butterfly would have emerged like any other beautiful butterflies! The continuous effort from the butterfly to come out of its cocoon would let the fluid stored in the body convert into wings. Thus, the body would become lighter and smaller and the wings would be beautiful and large.
If we don’t want to undergo any struggle, we won’t be able to fly!
Four years ago, I went through one of the most difficult professional experiences of my life. My work was not valued and my contributions were not appreciated. I experienced being ostracized in ways I would have never imagined by leaders in education. Things became so bad, that I prayed daily for relief. I think if someone would have “cut the “chrysalis”, I would have willingly accepted freedom from the constraints no matter the consequence. Things were so bad, I was ready to leave education altogether even after twenty-one years and not knowing what else I would do. In my mind, if education was only driven by testing and scores with no regard for people and authentic learning, it was no longer a place for me.
Then something wonderful happened. Instead of giving up, I escaped the environment. I found that while some school districts resolve to put standardized testing scores first, there are still others that know that if you teach students well, love them, engage them and meet their needs first, the results on tests will come. Even though I experienced a year and a half of torture, I fought my way out. Today, I wouldn’t give back even a second of the struggle. I take those lessons with me every day. They have shaped who I am as a principal. I know that I will never ignore someone because they may think differently than me. I will never believe that the way to “get test scores” is to “eliminate the number of low-income students in the district by reducing their chances for housing”. It doesn’t mean I’m afraid to have the tough conversations, I absolutely will. Not for my benefit, but for those I lead. When we lead, we have to say what needs to be said. If we care about people, they need to know. But it can always be said out of love and respect.
In addition to justifying the importance of struggle, a butterfly is the perfect mental model when we think about transformation and learning. This creature born from a tiny egg, initially explores the world eating up everything it can find, then closes itself up for a period of digestion and change, to emerge elegant, evolved, and ready to fly. Once reaching their last stage, they serve as pollinators to keep the circle of life moving.
I think the butterfly life cycle epitomizes my recent learning in the areas of grit, growth mindset and poverty. I entered this field of study ready to gorge upon a topic, starved for information so that I could better understand how to create better learning for my students. I spent a year reading books and articles, watching seminars, and attending professional learning on these topics. I wanted to explore every perspective to create deep understanding. Some sources stated that grit and growth mindset is the “game changers” in education, while others claimed these to just be the new “snake oil”. I studied poverty research from sources that took a scientific approach, while other focused mainly on implications for education, while still others drug you through the human element of all the tragedy and pure struggle those in poverty face.
My brain, stuffed with ideas and questions, needed time to ponder and reflect while synthesizing this new learning with my old ways of thinking. I had to resolve my personal beliefs about grit and growth mindset, in addition to how it would change my approach to education, especially when working with my students who were living in poverty. Finally, after much contemplation, I was able to emerge with a plan to share this information with my staff and carry out an intentional plan for our school to strategically teach these skills.
I think we could discover much about successful transformation from the butterfly. Learning is tough. Most things that we truly have to learn or change don’t come easily, or we probably already knew how to do it. Real learning takes hard work, but we can’t give up. We have to have grit and believe in that we can become more than we were yesterday. We have to appreciate the struggle, because it will prepare us for independence. Besides, the struggle never lasts forever. Finally, when new learning occurs and we emerge transformed, we be must ready to pollinate the world and share our new understandings with others. New wisdom doesn’t do anyone much good if we keep it to ourselves. We must spread it to benefit others.
Essentially, with some grit and growth mindset, we can all emerge with the grace of a butterfly if we are just willing to see change as the opportunity to evolve and become better for ourselves and others.
I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have encountered a struggle and said, “They disrespected me”, or “He didn’t do what I needed them to do” or even “She hurt my feelings”. It’s not that these things are not true, but I have come to realize that too often, when someone else is doing something that makes us feel unhappy or disrespected, it is more likely about the other person than it ever is about ourselves. It is much more likely that the person that is exhibiting the behavior that we consider “unacceptable” is driven by their own needs that haven’t been met than that they are about wanting to “make” us feel a certain way, especially if we are dealing with children. Even more important is the idea that the way that we choose to respond can make the situation better or much, much worse.
This past week I have seen examples of handling just such events in completely opposite approaches. In the first situation, I was standing in my front hallway, greeting students as they arrived at school. I looked up to see one of our bus drivers marching in a group of boys from her bus. I could hear her in the office demanding to see either the assistant principal or myself because these boys “needed to be dealt with”. A few minutes later, one of my office staff came to me to let me know her request. I explained to my staff member that we would be unable to meet with the bus driver at this time. While both my assistant principal and I were busy greeting children and helping the school day get started, I could tell by the look in the bus driver’s eyes and the words she was already using, she was going to take the opportunity to “put these children in their place” in front of me. I didn’t feel it was right for these students to feel belittled in my presence, so I suggested to my office staff that the bus driver complete the necessary bus referral form and assure her that we would address her concern. Apparently, she didn’t even know the boys’ names and asked the staff for them. The bus driver also insisted they wait in the office. Of course when I saw them sit down, I went over and sent the boys to breakfast. I knew these boys probably hadn’t eaten, however before they could finish and get to class, the tardy bell rang.
As they rounded the corner coming back to the office for tardy passes, I could see that the day was only getting worse for them and it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet. One of the boys who I have spent two years building a relationship with, wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I am sure it was because of the fact that he was angry, he knew he might be disrespectful so he was trying to avoid that. One of the other boys smarted off to my counselor, which was very out of character given that she has provided him with snacks when he didn’t have them. I stopped the boys, told them I knew it had been a rough morning, but things were going to get better. They were here at school, they had eaten, and we needed to move forward. While we work hard not to have tardies, this one would be okay. Now was time to make the choices that would make it a better day in class.
I asked my assistant to intentionally choose a good time to visit with them that would not further escalate the bad feelings (i.e. not during their PE time). Later, I found out that three of the boys, who are brothers, including the one who didn’t want to make eye contact with me and the one who had responded disrespectfully to the counselor, had a hard morning before they had ever left the house. We knew their mother had been ill the night before at our Parent Orientation. Even so, this mother of four who comes from generational poverty, made her way to school to find out about what she needed to know about this upcoming year so she could support her boys in their education. During the early morning, she needed to go to the emergency room for a severe asthma attack. These three older elementary boys got themselves up, got themselves ready, and got themselves to the bus stop to get to school in spite of their worry for their mom. On the bus, the bus driver (who is new this year) had deemed it “no talking” on her bus. Several of the boys decided to play “silent tag” to entertain themselves. They were not up out of their seats or talking, but the game was not a good choice for the bus.
I shared this story with my staff. We have done a great deal of learning on poverty this past year to understand the quickly changing demographics of our school. We have gone from 8% economically disadvantaged to 52% of our student receiving free and reduced lunch in ten years’ time. Because we have seen some real needs for this demographic, and most of the staff comes from middle class, we have tried to learn from experts like Ruby Payne and Elia Moreno for insight. One of Ruby Payne’s action strategies is to build relationships as they are a critical driving force. People don’t care what you think or if they are following your rules if they don’t have a relationship with you. Elia Moreno talks about how we have to make people feel valued. I shared this story to help my staff not only see that this bus driver may have a difficult time repairing the damage done this morning, but that we have to remember that many of our students experience terrible difficulties before they ever step foot inside our building. We have to remember it is about them, not us, and that a few kind words, even despite some negative behavior is the key to turning things around.
Four days later, I heard another story as it shared with me be two completely different staff members who overheard the interaction between a teacher and one of her students. A commotion was heard inside a classroom and then the child who was still upset stepped into the hallway. A few minutes later his teacher followed. She asked him to explain what happened and why he threw an object in the classroom. He proceeded to tell her that the student he threw the object at had said something disrespectful to him and he was upset. And then….the most amazing thing happened. The teacher called the child by his name and said “I need to apologize to you.” (Did you take a breath? I did.)
The teacher went on to say that she was sorry that she didn’t give the child the opportunity to explain his side of the story before she asked him to receive the consequence of moving his clip. She said that she had only seen his reaction of throwing something and that she obviously needed to know there was more to this story. She said she had made a mistake. She told him that when he went back into the classroom, he could return his clip to its previous place. Then she said, “But now we need to talk about your actions.” She explained to the student that when something happens to upset him, he needs to report it to the adult and not respond in anger. She continued by recommending he use his words, instead his hands to solve his problems. Then she hugged him, told him how much she cared for him and escorted him back to class.
Here are two totally different approaches with two totally different results. One adult made it all about herself and had a goal of “putting those kids in their place.” Those boys left that situation with no respect for the bus driver and I’m hoping that we don’t have future incidents just to spite her for the way she treated them. The second adult made it all about the child and extended grace to him by modeling that one can bare the burden of a mistake and it doesn’t make you less of a person, it makes you more. She used the child’s name. She acknowledged her own mistake first, before talking about the child’s mistake. She used the calm adult voice of negotiation, and not a negative parent voice of criticism. She strengthened the relationship. That child will probably work harder to live up to this teacher’s expectations in the future.
Whether personally or professionally, whether working with children or adults, we can choose to give dignity or take it away. However, when we choose to give dignity and grace to those in need, we sow a path that allows the one in pain to grow beyond their current situation. For ourselves, we recognize that we don’t have to win by causing someone else to lose.
This blog will center on the concepts of “grit” and “growth mindset”. Both are relatively new concepts, at least in terms of research. As I began to hear about grit and growth mindset, I immediately felt a connection. Probably because I think I related to them and would attribute my own perseverance and success to these qualities.
Growth Mindset is defined by Carol Dweck as the belief that your abilities can be developed with effort and practice. The converse is the idea of “fixed mindset” which basically is the idea that you are what you are and there is not much you can do about it. My years as a diagnostician were driven by “fixed mindset”. You test a child’s IQ to determine their potential. You test their current academic level and subtract to determine if a disability exists. It never took into account that a child’s IQ could increase. After years of bursting parents’ “bubble of hope” for their child’s “education potential” by sharing and explaining IQ, I had to do something different in education. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was promoting “fixed mindset” and it was an awful feeling. Now we know that brain research says that our brains continue to grow and develop as long as we work them like a muscle. We can change that potential with effort and practice. Growth mindset gives us hope and control in our own destiny that cannot be defined by a number acquired on a test on a given day.
Grit is the ability to persist in long term goals, even when the task is difficult. This can be difficult, because today we live in a world of immediate gratification. While it is wonderful to look up facts immediately on our smart phones or have instant communication through a text, it has made us an impatient society. We want what we want and we want it now. If we do not reach goals immediately, the inclination is to believe it is impossible or to move on to something that will provide us with satisfaction on the spot. I think there is something to be said for the old saying “Good things come to those who wait.” It is the things that we work hard for and sometimes have to wait longer for that provide the most satisfaction. I spent a lot years insisting I would NEVER be a principal. While that is a topic for another day, when I finally did decide this was my professional goal, I wanted it to happen right away. Needless to say, it didn’t. I spent 8 more years and several experiences as the “runner up” before that dream would come true. Several of those failed attempts to secure a principal position were devastating. I was certain that I was most qualified or had demonstrated the effort needed. However, continued rejection makes you question your own abilities. Eventually, I was able to achieve my goal and being a principal the past two years has been the best experience of my career thus far. What if I had given up?
Obviously, working as a principal, the success of my students is an obsession. I felt that while often my students coming from impoverished backgrounds have grit when it comes to real-world survival, they often lack grit and growth mindset when it comes to academic tasks. When research shows that these can be the best predictors of academic success, and that education is the most viable tool to help someone exit poverty, the equation seems simple: Teach students grit and growth mindset so that they can achieve the education needed to determine the future the desire, rather than the one that will be defaulted to them if educational proficiency is not achieved.
So where does “grace” come in? In the last few years as I was trying to become a principal, I faced some tremendous professional adversity. Changes in leadership called into question my own professional values and beliefs. As I faced the disappointments in not becoming a principal, I was able to fall back on the idea that God had a bigger plan and His timing is perfect. I had faith that the perfect school was being prepared for me and when it was time, it would happen. It was never easy to trust in God’s greater plan, but God always gave me grace in my times of impatience and lack of faith. I have to say, two years ago, I became the principal of the most amazing elementary school in a district that supports me to grow and innovate in ways to best serve my school. I have students, parents and staff who are more amazing than I could ever imagine. I didn’t settle and I didn’t give up and I know without a doubt, this is what God always intended for me.