How to Have a Growth Mindset When Dealing with Challenges in the Classroom

When my son was young, one of his favorite books was Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.  He would sometimes beg my wife or I to read it aloud to him, especially if he was having a difficult day.  It got to a point where he had memorized some of the lines and would jump in as we read the story to him.  The phenomenal children’s book tells the story of Lilly, a young mouse, who acquires a new purse that she brings to her class for show and tell.  Despite being told to not play with her new purse, she does and consequently gets into trouble.  That afternoon, her teacher, and that night, her parents, remind her that even though today was a difficult day, tomorrow will be better.  My son seemed to like the idea of a clean slate when he woke up each morning.  Even now, at the age of 16, my wife and I will remind him of the moral from that story, and he chuckles.  Sometimes, we all need to be reminded to learn from our mistakes, but then to start fresh, moving forward.  While many children struggle with this skill, I find that even as a teacher and an adult, I sometimes struggle to follow Kevin Henkes’ sage wisdom.  How do I stay mindful living in the moment and not allow past happenings, thoughts, or actions to invade my present state of being?  While I am much better at this skill now than I once was, I still sometimes find myself challenged by being able to hit the restart button on a lesson, colleague, class, or student.

Luckily for me, today offered yet another chance to practice this skill of not allowing the past to sway my current thoughts and actions.  During my first period study skills class this morning, one of my ELL students struggled to understand what he needed to do regarding a new project we began in class today.  This is the same student that displayed many negative behavioral issues during the first week of classes, and will still occasionally show disrespect towards faculty members.  Although much of this behavior is due to his low English proficiency, it was still difficult to witness and be a part of it in the moment.  After introducing and explaining the project aloud to the class orally, with visual clues and a written handout, he was still unsure of what he was being asked to do.  However, he never asked any questions while I described and modelled how to complete each step of the process and the purpose behind the project.  He also shared his struggle to understand in a very broad manner, which he knows not to do since we can only help and support him if we know specifically what is proving to be challenging for him.  While I tried to help him understand what he needed to do to complete the task of reflecting on his learning since the start of the year, I felt myself struggling to help him in a meaningful and patient manner.  As I was never formally trained on how to support and work with ELLs, I found myself fumbling for words when trying to explain the directions to him.  I didn’t know how else to tell him ‘to answer the questions on the sheet’ so that he could comprehend the words and understand the task at hand.  I also noticed that I was becoming impatient with him every time he asked a question during the work period.  While I always assisted him when he needed help, I felt as though I wasn’t being mindful and open to helping him in a relevant and appropriate manner.  I felt like I was reminded of the poor choices he used to make in the classroom when I worked with him.  I felt frustrated and annoyed that I couldn’t help him and that he didn’t seem to want to help himself.  Fortunately for me and him, the class ended and off he went to ESL class.

During this break, I expressed my concern to my co-teacher that I am unable to effectively help this particular student as I am not formally trained to help ELLs.  I feel bad that I can’t better support him as he works to grow as a student.  Then came third period.  This same student returned to the classroom, displaying much more focus and effort.  He took copious notes during our class read aloud, asking questions when he was confused.  He also spent much time redoing an annotation assessment to demonstrate his ability to meet the graded objective.  He was focused on working hard and completing fine work.  He seemed, almost, like a different student as he didn’t allow his frustration or anger cloud what he needed to do and how he worked.  He seemed to treat second period, when he was away from the classroom, as a reset button.  He was showcasing his true potential during this third period class, unlike what I saw from him during first period.  I allowed this new behavior to paint a new picture of this student for me, mentally.  The frustration that I once felt regarding this student seemed to vanish once he walked into the classroom after being in another class for 40 minutes.  I gave him a chance to start over and display his true potential as a student.

Then, at lunch today, this same student came to me to let me know how he did on the math exam during the final period of the day, “I did well on the math part of test, but not so good on English terms.  I should have made flashcards last night like you said.”  We both laughed together as he realized that I was right regarding my advice to him last night.  Despite being frustrated with me last night and earlier this morning during PEAKS class, he was able to start fresh and learn from his mistakes.  We laughed about the challenges we both faced.  Because we changed the way we viewed the situation and tried to look at the latter part of the morning as a clean slate, we were able to both live in the moment and grow from what had happened in the past.  We didn’t allow our negative thoughts to permeate our current state of mind.  We just rolled with it all.  Although going with the flow tends to be something I struggle with, I’m trying very hard to do just that this year.  I’m trying to practice what I preach to the students about being mindful and self-aware in the moment, and it seems to be working.  Yah for me!  However, even more reason to celebrate is the fact that this student is also able to live in the moment and not allow our past interactions to prevent him from moving forward and growing as a student.  He’s able to be mindful and live in the present without having the past distract him.  It’s quite an amazing feat, given that he is only 12 years old.

Like Lilly taught my son and I, no matter how difficult past moments may have been, we always get a second chance to try again.  Now, I hope that I’m able to continue living in the moment and not be persuaded to act or think in a particular manner because of what happened in the past.  I will keep working at being mindful as I grow and develop as an educator so that I don’t get stuck using a fixed mindset.  Being open to possibilities is what helps us to grow and mature as people, teachers, students, and individuals.  Today, a student of mine and I made use of a growth mindset to be sure that we were able to improve in areas in which we both struggle.  It was like a whole new day for us even though only 40 minutes had lapsed since our challenging interaction.  Having a growth mindset doesn’t take much time, just lots of effort and commitment.  We clearly both wanted to do well, and it showed this morning.


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