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April 19, 2021

Moving From I Can’t To I Can’t Yet

This is the first in Marion Ivey’s Getting Better Together series, Moving From I Can’t To I Can’t Yet. Marion and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.

Last year, on the first day of school, I asked my kindergarteners to draw self-portraits. I passed out hand mirrors to each child and said, “Draw yourself the way you look today.”

One little girl looked at me, batted her long lashes, and said, “I can’t.” Over the first few weeks of school, I would find that this was her response to most challenges. She had already learned that if she said that, some well-meaning adult would do it, whatever it was, for her.

I am not that kind of teacher. My rule for myself is I won’t do for a child what they can do for themselves. I am happy to help, or teach you how, but not do it for you. This little girl and her “I can’t,” launched me on my journey toward teaching a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence can be developed with effort over time, the belief that smart is something you get, rather than something you either are or you aren’t – to my students.

Diverse in Every Way Imaginable

Since I teach kindergarten, in most cases, my students are all new to my school, with the exception of a few students who attended pre-K , and a few others with older siblings who have attended our school. Otherwise they are virtually unknown to us when they come on the first day. We have some, but limited information about their prior experiences and just a bit of data about school-related readiness skills. What I do know for certain, prior to meeting them, is that my new students will be diverse in every way imaginable.

The students will have varying early learning experiences, cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, religions, and ethnicities, so without question I know that a one-size-fits-all approach would be inappropriate. Each year, I have a student or students who give up easily, or are afraid to try challenging tasks. I always struggled with pulling work out of them, showing them that they could do it. In the last year, I have added lessons to my practice that illustrate the challenges of learning and illuminate how to perceive them as positive opportunities, rather than something to be avoided. The one thing that I believe to be true about all my students is that they are capable of learning, and each of them is worthy of receiving, and capable of giving, respect. It is this basis upon which I begin to impart the concept of a growth mindset.

Together, my students and I will create a culture of ownership, not only of our shared space, but also of their learning experience. Ownership that allows them to make choices about how they participate, what interests they pursue and, at times, which of their learning goals they will focus on in a given moment.

Collaboration with Colleagues

I learn from intentional professional development, from my talented peers in my district, who to my great fortune are willing to share and give tirelessly to help create and sustain the wonderful learning community our district is known for. It is this community that inspires me to be a teacher who is intentional about honing my craft. I grow as I discover new ideas and collaborate with my esteemed colleagues. I have come to realize that this is how growth starts with young children as well. Young children embrace opportunities to explore new things. They are eager to please respected adults and they repeat celebrated behaviors or actions. I am fortunate to be in a situation where teachers are held to high expectations and they work tirelessly to exceed them. I aspire to create a similar culture for my students.

My work this year is focused on making transparent for my students the belief that each of them is capable of learning and meeting my expectations and helping them access the most effective course to take to get there. I hope to help them learn that smart is something you can learn. It isn’t a thing that either you have or you don’t. If we want to get better at something we aren’t good at yet, we have to practice it, a lot. Some people learn things quickly. They are able to see the effective way to do those things intuitively, or they pick up on them easily. Other people can learn the same things, but may need the effective way to do it pointed out for them.

I hope to demonstrate and foster resilience and persistence for my students. While they are learning, they know that I am learning something new, too. I talk to my students about how each of them may need something different at times. I explain that I am trying to be the best teacher I can be for each of them. I ask them to let me know if I am doing a good job, or if I need to do more or less of something to help them. They will see me struggle and persist and eventually succeed, and I will watch them do the same.

A Dialogue with You

Over the course of this school year, I will be focusing my writing here at the Tcher’s Voice blog on growth mindset. I want each of my students to believe as I do that with guidance, and effective effort, each of them can learn. My work on growth mindset will be related to establishing high expectations and criteria for success with students; using formative assessments and self evaluation to monitor student growth and plan instruction; using portfolios to illustrate student growth and empower students to take ownership of their learning; conducting student-led conferencing with parents; and facilitating student reflection. I hope to have a dialogue with you about what you’re having success with in your classes, and ways that I might be able to help smooth your path.

I firmly believe that all my students can achieve great things, not just the ones whose parents ask for extra work or the ones who had the right preschool experience. All my students. For some, it will take more work. That is why I am there. I will help direct their efforts so that they can see the exact steps to take to be successful. Effort without guidance may or may not meet the goals. The students provide the effort, I will provide the guidance. It isn’t enough that most of my students are successful. I want them all to be. We work together to figure out what each student needs to be able to access the instruction.

And when I need help, I will reach out to my community of colleagues to provide support and guidance. And then I will work until each of my students believes what I do: that with effective effort, they all can learn. I won’t give up on any of them, ever, and I hope they never lose the tenacity that we cultivate together this year.


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