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Four Non-Negotiable Teacher Mindsets

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If you can’t affirm and work from the four “mindset” statements that comprise this article, [1] you must either

A) work to alter your beliefs, or

B) work to leave the profession.

Option A is where I live — repeatedly finding myself intellectually assenting to the four mindset statements that follow, but functionally, operationally working as if one or more of them aren’t true. Thinking as best we can is work.

And Option B is the only possible alternative for several reasons. First, much has been said about the importance of teacher mindsets, and I think the mindsets we teachers need to cultivate within ourselves are aptly boiled down into the four belief statements that follow. These beliefs are probably what fuel our perseverance, shape our behaviors, and motivate us to use effective teaching strategies. (See Figure 1.) As a result, these factors seem to me the most logical predictors of whether a given teacher’s classroom contributes to student achievement. [2]

Figure 1: A Hypothesized Model of How Teacher Mindsets Affect Student Achievement. This is a direct adaptation of the Consortium Framework put forth by Camille Farrington and her colleagues in their 2012 Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners report. The Consortium Framework pertains to the role of  for their nearly identical model for student performance, and anything that doesn’t make sense is my fault. Farrington does not make this application to teacher mindsets. Click to enlarge.

And second, without these mindsets, teaching becomes painful, and sticking to it becomes an exercise in frustration. Such exercises, when they become entire careers, accumulate into the wasted life.

Four Non-Negotiable Teacher Mindsets

1. I belong in this professional community.

If you don’t think that you belong in your hallway, in your classroom, in your district, in your state, or as a member of the ranks of the noble, professional teachers then you’re bound to experience one of several pathologies.

  • You’ll isolate yourself, keeping your door shut and your classroom closed.
  • You’ll stop looking for fellow professionals who are dong things better than you.
  • You’ll view the professional literature as optional, rather than a regular source of needed nutrition.
  • You won’t take pride in your school or its community, and therefore you won’t call forth your best work.

I’m all for paying close, internal attention to where we get our sense of identity from (intertwining our identify with how things go in the classroom is a recipe for burnout), but this doesn’t mean we should identify ourselves with fellow teachers and the profession at large.

2. My ability and competence can improve with my effort.

If you view yourself as having either no room for improvement (“I’ve arrived”) or no means through which to improve (“I am what I am; I’m just bad at X”), then you won’t improve. If you don’t believe that there’s more you can do or try in reaching That Student Who’s Failing or Those Kids Who Don’t Turn in Their Homework, your mind has no reason to work the problem and solve it.

Many decry present educational policy for its removal of teacher autonomy. While I agree that much of modern educational policy in the USA represents an insane devaluing of the teacher, I don’t agree that it has removed our autonomy. When we see each day’s chances to improve and grow stronger, we rediscover a sense of agency. (We also gain a new sense of the need to satisfice any responsibilities that have little bearing on long-term student flourishing.)

3. I can succeed as a teacher.

First, you must define success sanely — not as simple test score movement, but as the promotion of the long-term flourishing of your kids. That is our single, enduring standard. Current test-obsessed education policy is behind the research, but it will one day catch up: standardized test scores (when the tests are actually of high quality) can tell us something about the cognitive abilities of students, but they tell us little about the noncognitive factors that will inevitably influence long-term for our kids.

Our best bet for improving long-term flourishing outcomes is to help kids develop Strong Cognitive Abilities + Strong Noncognitive Abilities. That’s the daily, monthly, and annual success we aim for — growing those two things, in our specific contexts, as best we possibly can. We work our careers toward that.

Do you believe that you can succeed at helping your students improve at thinking, knowledge-building, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and succeeding? Do you think that, by the end of your year, your students could do these things at levels most wouldn’t dream of expecting of them?

4. This work matters.

If you’ve stopped believing that what you do in the classroom is pregnant with impact potential, you’ve either got to get to a place where you can believe again or you’ve got to leave. Some of you get to a place of apathy because you haven’t yet learned to satisfice the unimportant work (there’s plenty of that) and invest heavily in the important stuff. Others of you allow yourself to work 70 hours per week (and yes, it is working if you’re “relaxing” at night with a stack of student papers next to you), and so the work becomes everything and, eventually, nothing. (You need to set a work schedule.)

A kid we didn’t reach doesn’t mean the work didn’t matter. Teach long enough and you will inevitably hear from the kid you could’ve sworn you failed, only to find that you made an impact. This is the faith-iest part of our work, regardless of your religious beliefs.

Implications

A few closing thoughts:

  1. Administrators, I’m not proposing a witch hunt for bad teachers with bad mindsets. Supervising and evaluating teachers more intensely is neither possible nor advisable. Instead, I would propose that administrators and leaders consider how to create faculties and cultures that promote these mindsets [3]. If there are trenchantly obvious, negative mindset folks in your staff, I would recommend direct conversations (no indirect whole-staff announcements) with clear consequences for non-improvement. I don’t think I’m the only teacher who appreciates straight, earnest talk between professionals.
  2. Teacher mindsets are probably most vulnerable at times of professional transition [4]. If a teacher enters a school and is led to believe that she doesn’t belong there or that she can’t improve or that she can’t succeed or that her efforts don’t matter, then her performance will suffer, and that suffering performance will reinforce her developing negative mindsets. If I were in charge of early career or new-to-my-school teachers, I would work to affect and monitor these four mindsets for about 4-5 years. If it was time to make a tenure decision, I would use these mindsets as an important tool for my own understanding of whether or not a teacher was likely to make a long-term positive impact during his career. Instructional skill and student achievement results, especially early in one’s career, probably aren’t as reliable a predictor of future outcomes as what that teacher believes.
  3. Mindsets and beliefs are effective only inasmuch as they are moved from the head to the heart. Intellectually assenting to growth mindset, for example — “Well, of course I can improve with my effort. That’s growth mindset. Duh.” — is meaningless. What we’re after is making these statements operational rather than theoretical. Colloquially, these need to be in a teacher’s heart, not just his head. And I make this point for teachers — if you sat here and read these statements and said, “Well, yes, I believe these things,” then the next question is, “What proof do you have? How have these beliefs translated into action this past week?” We must be always mindful of our tendency to slip away from positive mindsets and into negative mindsets. This is why I say, at the start of this article, that I live inside of Option A — cultivating the right thinking is perpetual work.

Footnotes:

  1. I have not made these up. All of this thinking is a derivation of the Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners report by Camille Farrington and her colleagues at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The statements come from the Academic Mindsets discussed throughout the report. I first become aware of these statements through Paul Tough’s recent Helping Children SucceedCitation: Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
  2. I do not limit “student achievement” to standardized test scores; instead, achievements are stepping stones toward the long-term flourishing of the kid.
  3. Farrington’s literature review suggests that school/classroom context is the most sustainable means for improving student mindsets.
  4. See Farrington et al’s discussion of “School transitions” on p. 33 of the report.

Thank you to Camille Farrington and her team for their insightful report — may it gather widespread attention.

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One Response to Four Non-Negotiable Teacher Mindsets

  1. Sarah G. September 20, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

    I’d love to hear more on how administrators and teacher leaders can effectively create these cultures to encourage the four mindsets. I’ve worked with some great principals and coaches who made it look effortless, and I’m cursing myself for not paying closer attention to exactly what they did when they were here at our school.

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