By Peggy Wuenstel – I’ve had a lot of professional development in my career. I am always looking for the newest technique, the best materials, and the most streamlined method of achieving positive results for students. While I have always known there is no magic bullet, it hasn’t stopped me from looking for it. The reflective aspect of teaching requires us to look back on what we are doing and the results that we are obtaining with some regularity. The hope is, of course, that we will find that connective thread that tells us how we can duplicate the positive outcomes and enhance the growth of lower performers. It is almost never that simple.
A few months back, one of my Teacher of the Year colleagues, Jane McMahon, used a phrase in a meeting that stopped me in my tracks, and changed the way I have thought about this thing we call intervention ever since. She said, “Nine times out of ten, it’s the mindset, not the skill set.” I am not, and she was not, in anyway minimizing the need for good quality basic skills instruction. She is a middle level educator and I work with elementary school children. We know they need foundational skills to decode, to understand and to extend their thinking. But they also need a set of attitudes and dispositions that set them up for success. To that end, I would like to share three stories in how this has surfaced in my classroom this spring.
You can worry too much about being age/grade appropriate.
Our current educational climate requires us to measure, track and analyze everything. We monitor progress, contrast performance with grade level benchmarks, and make sure that the materials we put in kids’ hands are at appropriate instructional levels. We provide opportunities for challenge, but also for the ease and fluency that can help to create a lifelong love of books. But we often get too worried about the “levels” of things and forget about the loving of things. A kindergartner that I support recently had an interesting conversation with her classroom teacher. While enjoying and apple-filled churro from the breakfast line, she noticed the filling and mistook it for eggs. She turned to her teacher and said, “Look, this churro has eggs, it’s oviparous (an egg laying animal).” Although she got the biology wrong, she got the vocabulary right. Her mindset, the one that tells her there are few words that are not acceptable for kindergartners to use, will keep her adding to her cache of words and her world view.
If I think I am, I probably can be.
I love this time of the school year, because kids begin to redefine themselves. Middle schoolers on the cusp of high school sit a little taller in their seats. Elementary school students start to refer to themselves as “almost fourth graders.” With our help, they look back over what they have accomplished in the last eight months. They look at writing samples from the beginning of the year and cringe, knowing how far they’ve come. My youngest students start to refer to themselves as readers and writers, a message I have been delivering all year. Praise is often accompanied by the phrase, “That’s what good readers do.” The most heartbreaking cases are those kids who are unable to see themselves as capable; whose voices drop to inaudible when called on, who attempt as little as possible so that they will not be found wanting. Sometimes they come from homes filled with trauma. Sometimes they have extraordinarily talented siblings, and their strengths have yet to be uncovered. In all cases they have a mindset that limits not only how far they have come, but how far they can go.
Wanting more for yourself is not selfish.
I am blessed to have a spring birthday, and I got a terrific present from a young lady who fits squarely in several of the categories I delineated above. She gives herself permission to do less well than she is capable of because “mom said school was hard for her, too.” A conversation with her mother at spring conferences has paid some very big dividends. This student had no higher aspirations than staying at home with her parents for the rest of her life. When asked about her potential plans after her aging parents were gone, she reported that she would find a friend who needed someone to clean their house and move in with them. We decided that we all needed to work together to make this third grader want more for herself, and to see herself as capable of achieving it. In a recent lesson, the follow-up writing prompt asked students to elaborate on what “first” they would like to achieve. (The story was a fantasy about a youngster who was the first girl on the moon.) I told this student, after 6 weeks of concentrated efforts to increase her confidence and aspiration level, that one of the best birthday presents I received was her response to that question. I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from college represents a significant mindset shift that has paid off in reading results as well.
This talk of skill set has made its way into the political furor that surrounds schools today. We hear that jobs go unfilled because workers are unprepared. The assertion that our public school system can take on the responsibility of making every graduate ready to walk into jobs that require specialized training is ludicrous.
Perhaps the mindset shift that is needed here is that companies that benefit from trained workers would value it enough to invest in their workers and that they would compensate these jobs with salaries that would encourage workers to apply rather than complaining that skill sets do not meet their expectations. Success for all requires investment by all. Then, we can all reap the rewards.