Educators throughout the state heard me tell my story this year and were shocked to learn that my elementary school principal, Mr. McMaster, told me with complete certainty that I would “never amount to anything.” Clearly the man had a fixed mindset just like many of us do. Initially, I wanted to find Mr. McMaster and show off the strong, independent, and successful woman that I had become. However, my favorite teacher gently reminds me of a tough truth when he said, “Let him without sin throw the first stone.” (John 8:7) Although I’ve never told my students anything quite so harsh, I wonder if my former fixed mindset had a lasting impact nonetheless.
As much as I have preached growth mindset this year, I am guilty of also handling situations with a fixed mindset. Rather than considering what I would say to Mr. McMaster to prove my worthiness, I choose to consider how I would apologize to my students for my own fixed-minded thinking.
“Forgive me for taking it easy on you.”
From the very first day at the FDOE, Deputy Chancellor Brian Dassler put into action what he believed about my potential. In our very first meeting, he asked me specifically my thoughts about the topic the group was discussing. Caught completely off guard, I remember giving an answer that I now know was quite flawed. Yet, Brian listened to my ideas anyways and continued to ask for my opinion by having me review some of his materials. He wanted my thoughts about what he could add to make it better. Brian was the Deputy Chancellor of Educator Quality and he was asking me to give him feedback! Needless to say, I felt very unqualified. From that day forward, I began to drown myself in educational literature, podcasts, and research. I was motivated to be better because I knew my opinion was valued and I was believed in. I doubt I would have had such tenacity to have learned so much so quickly if I was allowed to sit and watch (as I hoped I would!) rather than be brought into the conversation. I’ve allowed too many students to watch the game instead of pushing them onto the field and that has to change.
“Forgive me for holding on to your mistakes.”
My family and I joke about a letter my younger sister wrote to me when we were kids during one of our fights. I had locked myself in my room, waiting for Katherine to come apologize for some seemingly grand offense. Finally, a note slipped under my bedroom door that read:
I’m really sorry for what I did. I want to play with you. Will you please come out of your room? I hope you will forgive me (PS Sorry I didn’t have time to put a period at the end of that last sentence.)
We laugh about how, even then, I was so critical with correcting spelling and grammar that Katherine knew I would be scanning her letter for errors while reading her heartfelt apology. I do have a bit of red-pen syndrome, always on the hunt for corrections that need to be made. While it can be beneficial in regards to self-improvement, it can also be damaging to people in our lives that feel that their mistakes will create impassible barriers between us.
Although my mistakes were far less publicized than my accolades, I did make several mistakes along the way. I experienced firsthand how important it is to react with a growth mindset, even in what we don’t say.
What made a significant difference on how I interpreted each mistake was how those around me reacted. Were they trying to push me forward, challenging me to push myself beyond my limits? Or were they disappointed and dismissive because my actions didn’t fit within their frame of thinking?
Sometimes, without saying it, we dismiss our students’ potential and withdraw our trust.
Instead, we should be using this as a learning opportunity and allow it to deepen our relationship rather than push us farther away.
“Forgive me for assuming that I know what’s best.”
At the beginning of the Teacher of the Year process, I was extremely naïve and unaware of the vast world of education outside of my state, district, and even classroom. Experiences would help reveal what I hadn’t seen about education before. While my core values and beliefs about instruction and education remained the same, I started to see aspects of these beliefs in a different light.
For example, when I first thought about advocacy, I thought it was only for those who knew a great deal about the education system or were angry about something. I was completely terrified about the idea and thought it was far too complicated to ever try myself. While I still believe advocacy is extremely complicated, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be solely for those who are angry. Advocates are passionate about what they believe and they are committed to making a change in an area they feel is unfair. It’s multi-faceted meaning every decision impacts people in different ways. Regardless, it’s still important to speak to your perspective knowing there will be winners and losers on both sides. Rather than fighting to be right, it’s more important that informed voices from different perspectives make it a point to truly listen to each other.
It would have been easy to rely on more knowledgeable sources, my “teachers”, to tell me what is truly right or wrong with issues such as advocacy.
Their voices are loud and it’s hard to hear your own voice whisper its truth.
But I’ve found that it is so much more powerful and authentic when I gained the confidence to ask tough questions and look through different lenses to draw my own conclusions.
I do this with my 8-year-old students and it has been liberating to watch them create their own mathematically sound strategies for solving equations. When I’ve required them to conform to my way, telling them which strategy was truly the best and easiest way, I tended to lose some of them. I can see now that it was as if they felt it was better to not fully understand than to question my authority. This freedom is indeed precious and I vow to never restrict the voices of my students again.
Mr. McMaster is probably out there somewhere, blissfully unaware of the impact he had on my life. I forgive him anyways. We all inevitably fall prey to fixed minded thinking. We are human after all. However, I don’t want to have to continue writing these apologies year after year. My new mindset is to assume that each new school year is my last chance at teaching and I don’t want to walk away with any regrets.