Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: New Decade Resolutions to instil a growth mindset in students

Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: New Decade Resolutions to instil a growth mindset in students

It's time for the dreaded New Year’s Resolutions. And this year it’s a bonus round of New Decade Resolutions.

So, what’s it to be? New dress size? New hobby? Or more often the case, what’s it not to be? No more wasting time on Facebook? No more bad-mouthing the boss?

Schools often use this time of year to instil a growth mindset in their students.

The philosophy behind it is worthwhile. It’s a response to our previous system of rewarding students based on natural talent rather than effort and application. For my generation, you were either ‘good’ at something or not; you were decidedly Honours or Pass by the time you hit secondary school.

Growth mindset replaces the ‘you can’t do that’ attitude, with the ‘you can’t do that YET’ philosophy. So little Johnny can’t draw? We’ll teach him. He just needs to try, learn from his mistakes and he’ll get there.

There’s so much to be said for this. It recalls Samuel Beckett’s wonderful line ‘Fail, fail again, fail better.’ It’s certainly something I hold close to my heart and it’s essential for creative types - the good stuff comes when you feel uninhibited, unjudged.

But as with everything, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater- because there’s a potential ugliness in telling kids they can do anything if they just try hard enough. With the focus on effort comes the assumption that all children are capable of getting that elusive A. They’re not.

What we really need in schools is a growth mindset combined with an understanding that we’re all unique learners with possible limits in certain areas. And that’s ok. We need to allow kids to sit in failure for a bit, not rushing them towards the ‘you learn from your mistakes’ station too soon.

Some parents don’t need any help with this, particularly parents of kids who are genuinely struggling. These are the parents who will focus on their child’s social/emotional development in parent teacher meetings. They get the bigger picture and where their child fits within it.

But some parents are a lot harder to handle. The parents of the child who seems to sport a halo of potential and talent.

The parent who is adamant that their child is studying Business in UCC, even though they’ve hardly done a tap in class. This is where growth mindset turns nasty.

Then comes the scariest parent. The one looking for exam tips when the child is barely hitting puberty.

The parent who uses growth mindset as a stick with which to beat their child. This is the student I really worry about.

The one in a home where expectations are always getting higher, where the limit of success equates only to the child’s effort levels.

This is where you really suspect problems with mental health, anxiety and low self-worth. Our points system combined with ‘growth mindset’ can be horrifically damaging.

One of the biggest casualties of our modern approach is resilience. Resilience exists in a sweet spot between being overly harsh and results-orientated and being overly soft and ‘growth mindset’ conscious.

Most parents struggle to find it, myself included.

Resilience happens when people really experience failure, the hardship of life. They are given time and space to go through it. Then they are given the support to ‘bounce back’. These days we rely too much on external supports, from teachers, parents and mental health professionals.

But we don’t seem to grasp that these skills, these resilience muscles, can only be flexed through genuine hardship. But we protect our children from anything unpleasant.

It’s a bit like teaching a baby to self-soothe. As a parent, you can’t continue to lie on the floor next to their bed, holding their hand, past a certain age. You must let go.

I was reminded by a student this year that I should really provide a ‘trigger warning’ before I cover any topic that might upset someone whose experienced trauma.

I respect the idea, but something in my gut reacts powerfully against it.

As an English teacher, I sometimes want to evoke bad feelings. I don’t want to forewarn students that something bad is about to happen.

For one thing the writer generally does this in the creation of atmosphere and for another, I want them to feel bad, in order to connect with the text.

If a student is going to find something more difficult than average, then it probably needs to happen, and they need to get help for it beyond my classroom.

Students too readily talk about ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ like they’re alien feelings, deformed versions of natural states of being. They’re not! These are perfectly normal reactions to our immediate surroundings.

This year, I would like parents to throw their child into a few nettles, figuratively speaking.

When they come to you, stressed about something, maybe don’t jump to problem solving. Maybe don’t email the teacher. Maybe just say, ‘It’s tough isn’t it’? or ‘I’ve felt that too; it sucks.’

Try a new year’s resolution of cutting the cord. For the teacher’s sake.

Let your kid do the work of navigating life a little more.

Sit back. Have a coffee. I’ve no doubt you’ve earned it.

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