Get Smart!

“Smart is not something you just are; smart is something you can get.”

Dr. Jeff Howard

I’d been teaching for about five years when I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Jeff Howard from Harvard’s Efficacy Institute. He introduced me to a number of new concepts: The Innate Ability Paradigm, Growth Mindset, Mobilized Effort, Coaching, Tenacious Engagement, and Focused Feedback. These were all fairly new ideas in education at the time, but now they are common concepts for most educators. After the time I spent with Dr. Howard, something changed in my belief system and my work as a teacher.

I defined growth mindset for my students as the understanding that hard work, strategic and targeted effort, and tenacious engagement can improve outcomes.  As a teacher, I found it easy to create a culture of growth mindset in my classroom. It began at the classroom door with a sign that stated: “Are you ready to be tenaciously engaged?”  Students set goals individually and as a group; they declared their goals publically so that classmates could help them discover strategies for success; and we measured and celebrated the successes or created new strategies to meet the goals yet to be achieved. I had little difficulty applying the understanding that all students could develop the skills and dispositions to become better at whatever they were trying to achieve no matter where they began, whether it was writing a persuasive essay for a new recess schedule, memorizing math facts or researching who really discovered America.

Fast forward a few decades and the teacher is now the student. I’d always been a fairly good student, especially in graduate school where I finally found my passion in teaching. But as I continued my education, the learning became more and more challenging for me. Over the  past year, I have been taking courses full time with a focus on research. This is an area I had limited experience in. Research writing is a genre unto itself. My first submission received a score of “Developing.” My first thought was that I had received what would be equivalent to a D.  I was not used to this. I moped, I blamed and I even shed a few tears. Certainly not a growth mindset or one focused on strategic continuous improvement.

Despite the tears, I remembered what I taught my students so many years ago: In this class we work hard to get smart. So what was different in my case? The growth mindset I had for my students and cultivated in them was not as easy for me to cultivate in myself. Why is it different for the teacher than the student? I spent a week reflecting on my reaction and realized that the gift I so easily gave to my students was one I was struggling to give to myself.

I took all that I knew and developed a plan for success by creating strategies to meet my goal, mobilizing my effort, focusing on feedback, seeking out and willingly accepting coaching, and believing that hard work would get me to where I needed to be.

Well, I haven’t met my research writing target yet, but I am improving with each attempt. I am truly living what I expected from my students: I am working hard to get smart at research writing. I’m not there yet, but I have no doubt that I will be in the near future.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons, MEd, CAGS, and doctoral candidate, is UVEI’s Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of our faculty.