“I want you to know that I attribute much of my success to people like you, who shaped my outlook on life. I remember your class and many of your lessons. You were tasked with a very large challenge: bringing open mindedness, diversity and differences to a community that was non diverse and all very much similar. I am forever grateful for the discussions and topics we discussed, particularly in your social issues class. But above all else: I am MOST grateful for you giving me the opportunity to realize my potential. If not for you, I may have never had the confidence to believe that I could pass two bar exams (one the first try nonetheless). You were one of, if not the only educator of mine that believed I was smart enough for honors. That was the FIRST step to feeling like I was good enough. Thank you for that.” -Former student from West Islip High School
I.CAN’T.STOP.THINKING.ABOUT.THIS.EMAIL. The above excerpt was received in an email this week from a former student who found me on Twitter. The punctuation in my first sentence is intentional. The email brought tears, joy, inspiration, and thoughts that are driving me to help teachers develop their craft. I had this student in eleventh grade. With only two years of high school remaining, I remember seeing her as a true thinker. She was brilliant. She got it. In all her years of education, her teachers saw her as a great student in the average Regents class (the school had Regents Prep, Regents, Honors and Advanced Placement). Deep down, she just wanted to “feel good enough.” She was far better than good enough. Why should I have had that power? Teacher expectations carry so much weight in students’ successes and mindsets.
In studying and learning the power of a growth mindset and the dangers of a fixed mindset, I find it remarkable that we often project a fixed mindset on students on both ends. We determine the level of education that they should pursue, the level of coursework that they should entertain, and even if they belong in an elite group of students at such an early age. I was in “Wider Horizons” in elementary school. What a name–horrific for those who had supposed narrow futures. Meanwhile, you would be shocked, well maybe not, if you did data analysis on the students who had wider horizons in fourth grade. My elementary school certainly didn’t precisely predict. How do we ensure students don’t get to eleventh grade before a teacher sees in them something that would come true later in life? This former student of mine is an attorney. Sure, it all worked out in the end. But, what if she “realized her potential” and received the “first step” earlier on? This conversation must take place. Her email has prompted my reflection. Did I let other students slip by? Did I focus too heavily on those who exhibited academic extroversion?
Well, what do we do? We need MakerSpaces. We need Genius Hour. We need coding. We need time to explore and be messy. We need ALL students to find their confidence. In that process, their growth mindset will prosper and push out the structures that have captured their passion. Thinkers always rise to the top. They exist in all classrooms on all levels. Let’s give them all a voice.