Geeking Out and Freaking Out About School

“Summer’s off.”

“All the vacations!”

“Only work 10 months of the year.”

Anyone who’s ever cited the above reasons for why they became a teacher is a liar, and anyone who assumes the above is actually true has clearly never lived with a teacher. While I can confidently dispel the myth that teachers do not live at school, I cannot say that the dwelling of a teacher (or any educator, for that matter) has not effectively become a school, in the sense that the “teacher hat” rarely ever (truly) comes off. 

While I’m sad to say that my year of teaching mathematics to a brilliant group of students in Kazakhstan is now over, I am happy to report that I will be working as a science teacher at a Canadian international school in Seoul, Korea come Fall.  Currently unemployed, I have been spending my summer months contemplating the new school year to come. As a new teacher, I get thrown with a lot of advice: 

“Make learning interesting”

“Don’t just lecture”

“Let your students have FUN!”

“Whatever you do, don’t smile until December”

“Whoever said not to smile until December is throwing out a bunch of bull-crap” 

I mean, all this advice is helpful in some way, but mostly, I worry. I worry because I know that the advice usually stems from some past experience; perhaps my adviser has had a brilliant teacher in the past and wants to give me some insight on best practices, or maybe the experience was so traumatic that it is a warning against what I might become. I know, and am reminded every day, that teachers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the lives of their students, whether its for better or for worse. I would be lying if I said that thought has never kept me up at night. 

So what does a young, novice teacher like me do during their free time? Well, this summer (like the last, and probably for many summers to come) has been filled with a lot of reading; books about science education, classroom management, cognitive psychology, teaching and learning . . . you name it. Books, and also a lot of web-surfing in search of inspiration and ideas for the next school year. The great thing about being a teacher today, versus 50 years ago even, is the incredible, vast, and extensive amount of information available literally (excuse the cliche) at our fingertips. With the advent of online textbooks, YouTube, massive open online courses (MOOCs), I really have no excuse for not knowing better. The issue now becomes knowing how to efficiently and effectively conduct searches, filter out the big ideas, and not get caught in fun  yet unproductive Pintrest spirals, or the ever-so-looming YouTube vortex. 

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A sample of my summer reading.

I find myself constantly striving to be perfect. I work, rework, and surgically remove minute details in my lesson plans until I am convinced they are just so. Then along will come some new insight I’ve read in a book or online article and I will repeat the process all over again. I worry about many things:

     Will my students find this topic interesting? Can they relate this to their own lives?
     What will they remember 10 years from now?
     Is this an example of content-based, activity-based, or inquiry based teaching?
     How can I work towards developing lessons that are more minds-on rather than hands-on
     How can I better scaffold this project to ensure top-quality work? 
    . . . and so on. 

The result of all this worrying is twofold: 1) my brain is now attempting to process more information than it can actually take on, and 2) very, very slow progress with my unit planning. I realize that I need to just give myself permission to just be okay with being a novice. I mean, there really is nothing more liberating than knowing you are not the best and that it is okay (splendid, even) to keep learning – that is a belief I want to instill in my students too! Of course, knowing all this, it is still a constant struggle to be mindful of it, and I am sure I will be reminding myself (and my students) of this more than once. 

So here’s to wanting to be a great teacher, but okay with being good (modest?) one (for now). 

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

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Angela Duckworth is an American psychologist whose work is dedicated to helping kids succeed (you can read more about her here or watch her TED talk here). Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance provides a summary of  her own research and related findings on grit and it’s reliability as a predictor for future success. The last chapters also include insights on parenting grit and examples for how teachers can create a classroom environment that supports grit. 

As evident in the title of her book, Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. It is reminiscent of Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset, the idea that your skills and abilities are not fixed, but can be developed over time. The message of grit is similar to one that my grandfather has often repeated, “I might not be smart, but I know how to work hard” – that is, hard work exceeds talent. With effort-ful and deliberate practice, we can all acquire the skills we need to achieve the goals we set for ourselves

Duckworth’s research has been mentioned in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed (see my blog post here) which in large is what compelled me to learn more about her work. Of particular interest to me is how I can use this information to better inform my classroom practices as an educator. Throughout my reading I made some observations and reflections, which I share below.  

The ‘Fragile Perfects’ and Creating a  Classroom Culture of Error
The term “fragile perfects” was coined by Duckworth to describe those who have yet to experience failure in a particular area, like straight-A students who have yet to receive a failing grade before they reach university. “Fragile perfects” are most at risk to be lacking in grit in their adult life. In order to develop grit and resilience, however, opportunities must first arise that demand it. While I do not believe it is within our scope as teachers to intentionally help our students fail, I do believe, however, that setting high standards* and creating a classroom culture of error can go a long way in fostering grittier students.

(*still trying to figure out exactly what this means)

First, it is important that each student is adequately challenged in the classroom. When basketball coach Ken Carter (made famous by Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal in the movie Coach Carter) benched his entire team for their low academic performance, he was met with anger. “Basketball is the only positive thing these kids have in their lives,” many teachers and parents argued, “If you take that away from them, they have nothing.” But therein lies the problem, Carter asserted. If we hold our students to low standards, we box them in and we send the message that they aren’t capable of doing more. Carter had higher aspirations; he believed that every one of his students could go to college. Rather than relenting to public opinion, Carter fought to continue the lockout despite protestations from his community. Playing basketball, like learning, is a privilege that needs to be earned. As teachers, we need to resist allowing students to fall into passive learning modes and refuse to accept anything less than their best. One of my favourite quotes from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov is, “The reward for a correct answer, is a harder question.” I think that as teachers we need to send the message that great success demands a high level of challenge and rigor, and that everybody is capable of success so long as they are willing to put in the work. 

Next, it is important to show students that perfection and being right is not as important as the ability to bounce back from failure. Creating a classroom culture of error means that teachers need to be conscious of how we react when we make mistakes in the classroom. Do we get flustered and embarrassed, or  do we say, “Oh it seems I’ve made an error somewhere, let me try again”? How we respond to incorrect responses and the words we choose when praise students also matters. Do we praise on intelligence or effort? “You’re so smart!” sends a different message than “I like the way you kept trying to rework the question even though you didn’t get it right the first time.” Adequate challenge, a culture of error, and specific praise all make a difference in creating situations in which students gain more confidence taking on increasingly more difficult challenges. 

Goal Hierarchies 
One approach to prioritizing goals in your life is to create a list of all the things you want to accomplish, and organize them according to their goal hierarchies. It’s easy to say, “I want to be an all star baseball player,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. In the short term, you might be praised for your ambition towards this higher level goal. However, simply having a high level goal without any mid or low level goals to support it is just an empty goal. Aligning your goals into one goal hierarchy that supports a higher level goal looks something like this:

“Pitching . . . determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too . . . Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it . . . I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things  that help me be happy.” – Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver in Grit

Generally speaking, we are not all that extreme. Nor are we all fortunate enough to have realized what our passions in life are. As a teacher, I think it’s important to realize that most of us only see our students in the classroom context. We cannot force our students to enjoy learning science or math, but we can share the joy of learning and help students develop the skills needed to accomplish their personal goals. I admit, most of my students will probably never have to use advanced trigonometry ever again in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t learn advanced trigonometry. In learning content that is difficult and challenging, students inevitably hit a brick wall. It’s what they do in those moments of difficulty that is most defining. Whether they give up or persevere can either set them on a path for future failures or successes. Thus, I believe that the value of content is its ability to drive skills development in order to help learners become proficient citizens of the 21st century. 

Developing An Interest – Play, Passion, and Purpose
The importance of discovering and developing one’s interest is a topic explored in depth throug
hout the book. Is it true that the more you are interested in something, the harder you’ll work at it? Or is the opposite true: the more you do something, the more interested you’ll become? Duckworth contends that there is a third, more important consideration – do you find your work meaningful? To illustrate her point, she recounts the tale of the three bricklayers: 

“There were three bricklayers. Each one of them was asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first one said, ‘I’m laying bricks.’ The second said, ‘I’m building a church.’ The third one said, ‘I’m building the house of God.’ The first one has a job, the second a career, and the third a calling. “

Duckworth’s insights are not groundbreaking or new. Time and time again, we are told to follow our passions and that if we are able to do what we love, not a single day of it will feel like work. Yet how does one develop a sense of purpose? I noticed an interesting parallel between Duckworth’s ideas about developing and interest, and Tony Wagner’s beliefs about fostering innovation in today’s youth. According to Wagner, play, passion and purpose are forces that drive young innovators. Both Duckworth and Wagner emphasize the importance of a childhood of unstructured play and supportive parents who give their children permission to pursue their interests and develop their passions. As a classroom teacher, the most powerful tool I can provide my students is choice. In giving them room to explore a variety of topics that interest them, I can hopefully pave the way to helping learners develop a lifelong purpose.  

Final Notes
I would recommend this book to any educator, administrator or parent looking to foster a culture of grit in the classroom, workplace, or in their children. In education, there seems to be an increasing trend in emphasizing the development of positive character traits (e.g. grit, resilience, optimism…etc.) rather than intelligence, which is well supported by the points made in this book. Also, I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and stories which helped make the research findings more relate-able. Moving forward, I’d like to adapt some of the ideas in this book into my classroom teaching. Specifically, I want to open conversations with my students about growing grit and developing a growth mindset. I hope that these conversations will be the spark needed to set students on a path to continued self-improvement.

Duckworth, Angela. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Simon & Schuster.