Mindset Over Skill Set

I wrote this post while I was working as an Instructional Coach with YES Prep's Teaching Excellence Program and it was originally published in April 2013 on this blog.

Last year, I coached an 8th grade algebra teacher, Ahra, who began her first year as a TFA corps member at our YES Prep North Central campus.  Shortly after the ‘honeymoon period,’ off task behaviors started to be the norm, and it was an uphill battle for the rest of the year.  This is not rare in a new teacher’s classroom.

But what is rare, was Ahra’s reaction to this struggle.  Many new teachers quickly become jaded and blame the kids or they give up and quit.  They’re not sure how to handle misbehaviors and, as a defense mechanism, start making excuses that typically point the finger at the students instead of themselves.  Ahra, though, had the mindset we look for at YES Prep.  Not only did she persist without becoming jaded, she was relentless in her commitment to become the teacher those students needed.  She constantly reached out for help, both to me as her coach and to other experienced teachers on her grade level.  Even as she struggled, my respect for her constantly grew.  Never once did she make an excuse or blame her students – she took full responsibility for the state of her classroom and the learning she knew needed to happen.

Ahra also found powerful allies in the administration at North Central.  They knew that Ahra was a ‘good fit’ at YES – she was committed, humble, and hungry – and so they were equally relentless.  The school director participated in a classroom reset conversation to lend his support and her Dean of Instruction and the math specialist alternated co-teaching Ahra’s toughest class to make sure her great lessons got through to the kids.  We did several co-observations of her class to make sure our feedback was aligned and targeted.

For a while, I had my doubts.  Was all the support going to pay off for Ahra?  At our final meeting in the spring, her administration gave her a choice for next year: co-teach 6th grade math or teach Algebra II.  In my mind, the choice seemed easy; go with 6th grade with a co-teacher so managing discipline will be easier.  But Ahra wanted to teach Algebra II.  Why? “Petra, next year I’m going to be a better teacher.  Then, in my third year when I’m pretty solid, I’ll have these 8th graders for Algebra II and I can fix everything that went wrong this year.”  Even when offered an easier path, Ahra’s commitment to her present students was in the front of her mind and she took that path. 

This year, teaching Algebra II, Ahra and her students are doing well.  She started the year with a coach, since her administration wanted to make sure she was set up for success, and she quickly proved that management was not going to be a concern this year.  In fact, she’s now a model for new teachers to follow.  All of her work and her school’s support paid off and she’s more than making up for her rocky start.

Often people think we only want experienced, accomplished teachers at YES Prep.  And while we definitely want those, we also hire a lot of brand new teachers.  We have the programming and support in place to develop new and experienced teachers, so when we hire, we hire for one thing: mindset.  Will these teachers be committed, humble, and hungry?  Our students deserve nothing less. 

Today, Ahra is teaching her original eighth graders Algebra II and is a strong, 3rd year teacher at YES Prep North Central.

To learn more about joining Ahra and our teaching staff, click here.

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