I’m going to let you in on a secret about myself, I am a grown woman and I do not know how to swim. I never took lessons as a kid, so I can swim to survive, but it’s not pretty. I decided that this year would finally be the year I learned (mostly because my friend and I have a crazy idea that we are going to compete in a triathlon). Like many of my students, I typically pick up new things pretty quickly. I’m not particularly athletic but I had no trouble hitting the mileage for the bike and run portions of the triathlon in training. I figured swimming would take more work, but I would get it, just like everything else.
Fast forward a month later. I watched all the YouTube videos about learning how to swim and still found myself leaving the pool frustrated and discouraged. I decided I needed help and signed up for swim lessons. Again, I knew that swimming would be hard, but with a few lessons, I was sure I would pick it right up.
Fast forward two weeks into lessons. I walked into my swim lesson, confident because the night before I had swam for an hour, found the confidence to make it through the deep end and finally felt like my breathing was falling into place. I got in the pool, struggled to swim two laps, and looked up to my swim instructor telling me “you need to put your head in the water, watch John to see how he swims.” Immediately I fought back tears and told my swim instructor “I know what it is supposed to look like, I just can’t do it.” In that moment, I seriously considered getting out the pool and quitting. I finished the lesson, but I fought back tears the entire time.
As I walked into the locker room, still holding back tears, I realized that this is what some of my students feel like all the time. I build a growth mindset culture in my classroom from day one, but I had become detached from what it actually feels like to have a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset requires struggle and failure.
Once you get into your teaching routine, there is not a lot of struggle. There are changes and challenges, but rarely do you encounter a situation that completely breaks your confidence or forces you entirely out of your comfort zone. I consider myself an empathetic teacher who tries to connect with her students. I understand that students learn at different speeds and I structure my class accordingly. I even joke with my students that sometimes learning is awful and feels terrible. I don’t think I fully appreciated the frustration, pain and inadequacy my students sometimes feel until today.
Today I had a fixed mindset moment. I thought to myself “I will never learn how to swim, I don’t have the ability, I should just quit.” I guess when you’re a teacher, sometimes you create your own teachable moments. In this moment, I realized my students probably think, “I will never learn chemistry, I’m bad at science, I should just quit.” I realized having a growth mindset doesn’t mean never thinking about quitting, it means shutting down the voice in your head that says “I can’t” again and again and again.
Even though I left my swim lesson still choking back tears, I knew I would be back in the pool the next day. What kept me going is my swim instructor telling me that my stroke looked better. That was all I needed to hear. I didn’t expect to come into the lesson with perfect freestyle form, but I did expect to be better than I was last week. Not because I had magically learned how to swim, but because I had worked hard.
I wanted to write this story down as soon as I got home to encourage you as a teacher to do three things:
- Do hard things and embrace the struggle so you remember what it feels like.
- Tell your students about how you felt when you struggled, what you thought and what you did in response. Even if you had a fixed mindset moment.
- Encourage your students when they make progress. Let them know that you see their effort and it is working.
I know that every time I get into the pool, I am going to have to block out the voice in my head telling me “I can’t.” I can do that, but it is a lot easier when there are voices outside me saying “you can.”
Editor's Note: If you are interested in reading more about Growth Mindset, Lauren published Building Buy-In Through a Growth Mindset Classroom Culture in August 2017.