On Overcoming a Fixed Mindset – Reflections of a First-Year Teacher

As this year draws to a close, and my first year of teaching winds down, I find myself continually asked for some sweeping statement on how the year has gone. “What was it like?” “Was it what you expected?” “Are you going to keep teaching forever?” One question, in particular, always makes me pause.
 
“What advice would you give first-year teachers?”
 
I pause because I don’t know where to begin. What is the one thing I wish I’d known? Would it be about behavior management? Classroom culture? How to have some semblance of work-life balance? How to mail-merge?
 
If I stop and think, though, I immediately recognize the one thing I wish I’d known. I didn’t figure it out until midway through my first year.
 
At YES Prep Southwest, there is much discussion of non-cognitive habits – the specific character traits that will help our students get to and through college, the ideas and beliefs that will set our students up for successful and giving lives. One of my closest friends has expanded upon this to set her entire classroom up around the idea of a growth mindset. We talk about growth mindsets for students and yet, when I first started at YES, I didn’t have a growth mindset myself.
 
Essentially, a growth mindset is a foundational belief in the power of one to change, or grow, his or her ability. This ability can be knowledge or success, or in my case, teaching ability. The flip side is a fixed mindset – a belief that you are simply good at something or you’re not, that you have an ability or you don’t. With a fixed mindset, failures can make you feel like you are a failure since you don’t have that belief that you can work hard, grow, and change your ability level.
 
In all honesty, I had a fixed mindset in college, and it plagued me my first few months of teaching. It’s not uncommon to have a fixed mindset. It carries many people through college, and it’s possible to be successful in some domains with a fixed mindset – but in my opinion, it is not possible to reach one’s full potential as a teacher without a growth mindset. This is the advice I’d give to first-year teachers.
 
This fixed mindset made it incredibly difficult to learn and grow. YES is an amazing place because it provides so much support for first-year teachers, but without the right mindset, I found it difficult to take advantage of that support. I was constantly worried about being judged or evaluated and was reluctant to take instructional risks, for fear of things not going well immediately. Small obstacles or challenges felt very decisive; I saw them as a sign that I wasn’t “meant” to be a teacher.
 
As my school delved deeper into the idea of non-cognitive habits, and after a friend of mine suggested I read Mindset, I became acutely aware of the shortcomings of my own mindset. I recognized all the ways it held me back from settling into my new life at YES. I saw how unhappy it could make me – particularly in situations when I wasn’t completely confident in what I was doing, which is a lot of what first-year teaching actually is. But most of all, I realized that it was holding me back from being the best teacher I could be for my students, who deserve the world.
 
Gradually over second semester, I affirmatively tried to change my mindset, one aspect at a time. Instead of walking away from feedback sessions feeling bad, I reminded myself how lucky I was to work at a place where feedback is given so freely, and how grateful I was to receive such targeted advice. Instead of worrying about observations I began to look forward to the opportunity for someone to help me tweak small elements that weren’t working as well as they should. When I saw rockstar teachers all around me, instead of feeling threatened, I tried to seek them out and figure out which techniques I could adapt for my own classroom. Most of all, I began to be more patient with myself. I recognized that the growth of a teacher takes years, and that every challenge or misstep just brought me that much closer to being the teacher I hope to someday be.
 
I had never heard of a growth mindset until I began working at YES Prep. Every day, I am grateful I learned about it, and I feel fortunate to have developed a mindset that will help carry me forward, to wherever I will someday end up. It is a transferrable and transformational attitude. I am not 100% of the way there yet – there is still much work to be done – but I look forward to seeing where it will take me for my second year of teaching.
 
Whenever people ask me what advice I would give now, I smile. And then I talk about a growth mindset.

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