Paul Tough has reshaped how I manage my classroom. In his book How Children Succeed, Tough argues that character skills – grit, integrity, collaboration – can be taught, regardless of a kids’ background, and will have a profound impact how successful a child is as an adult. As he puts it, “character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate…They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow.”
Tough’s line “they are molded…by the environment of which children grow” resonates with me. It is as if Tough is saying teachers are like gardeners tilling the dirt in a garden, priming the soil to foster growth. I decided I would “mold” a safe environment in which my students would grow emotionally and intellectually in my classroom by instilling in them character skills for success. I developed a catchy kid-friendly slogan I call the “3As that Lead to an A” – Assertive, Attentive, Adept. I define assertive as being able to self advocate and willing to take a risk of ideas; attentive as being observant and able to focus; and adept as trying your best to reach your potential.
This fall I began teaching at a new school, in a new district, and learned quickly that both institutions share my passion for molding character through a growth mindset. At the district’s new teacher training, the Superintendent discussed how she expects “all students to be future ready, regardless which path they choose.” One of the assistant superintendent showed us the Lake Washington Student Profile, that outlines the 21st century skills all kids in the district must possess to be “future ready” by the time they graduate. Later on in the training, the district’s professional development team talked about how the growth mindset extends to all staff, teachers, and administrators. As the director of professional development put it, “we want to foster an environment of professional growth for all our employees, so that you are able to nurture the growth of all our students.”
At the end of the training, we looked at the Danielson Framework that we will be used as our criteria for our TPEP evaluation. We, then, self-assessed ourselves on our strengths and weaknesses as instructors. Domain 2, Classroom Environment, spoke directly to instilling and fostering a growth mindset. Under this domain, teachers will be evaluated on:
• Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport
• Establishing a Culture for Learning
• Managing Student Behavior
• Organizing a Safe Physical Space
I was determined to set the groundwork to meet all these criteria in my classroom the first day of school.
The following week was the before school in-service days in my new building. My new principal talked to the staff about a new school intervention called Homeroom. Based on a Florida high school’s model of its “Power Hour,” students would have time during the school day to conference with their teachers to get assistance on their class work. Some of the staff was apprehensive about the program. They worried the logistics would be chaotic – kids wandering around the hallways, students coming and going to classrooms as they please, and teens being teens, kids squandering their opportunity to seek assistance. How would they be held accountable? My principal responded by asking two questions of her own: “Why? Or Why not?” She elaborated, “I ask myself why are we doing this, not out of negativity, but out of curiosity. My answer is we should do this because it will provide an intervention and allow kids to advocate for themselves. Then, Why Not? Then, I ask myself why can’t we do this? We don’t know what will happen until we try. We have to trust the program, and see it in action, before we dismiss it.”
I appreciated her sense of vision, her willingness to take a risk that could result in benefits for everyone, and her faith in the process.
As I prepped my classroom for the school year, I created a poster with the 3As, clearly brandished at the front of my room. I printed out copies of the 3As and the Student Profile, and had my students self-assess their strengths and weaknesses as learners. As the year progresses, I will have them self-assess whether they met the skills outlined by the 3As and in the Student Profile at the end of each academic unit. I hope they will be able to see their success as learners is intrinsically linked to how well they demonstrate character skills.
At the end of the first week of school, the staff was asked to form professional learning groups. I joined a group with two other new teachers. At our first meeting we were joined by our evaluator. I confessed to her I was surprised she allowed us to form a professional growth group consisting entirely of newbies. She demured. Her reply epitomizes how to mold a growth environment, “You choose who you want to work with. You choose what assessments you’ll use as benchmarks. You determine what students you’ll use as a focus group to collect data from. That’s what professional growth is all about.”