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Foster a Growth Mindset

Push (Ups) for Growth

Feb 01, 2019 2019-02-01

By Kristin Hayes-Leite

By the time students reach high school, they have fully embraced a particular idea of themselves as a learner. I frequently hear students say things like “I’m not good at math,” “reading is too hard,” or “I don’t do well on tests.” These comments are made by bright young people who are too young to give up. What I know for certain is that they want and need a teacher to tell them they are wrong.

When I have one-on-one conversations with students to discuss their intelligence and strengths, it is not unusual to see their eyes well up. What they hear is their worst fear—that they are stupid—is simply not true. But getting students to implement strong study habits to support their growth is a much harder battle.

To foster a growth mindset early in the year I ask students to tell me about themselves as learners. Kids gladly share their frustrations about school and studying. I then ask them how many push-ups they can do or how far they can run. I listen as they happily share their physical feats, and then I ask how many push-ups they think I could do. The guesses are all over the place until I hit the floor and give it my best. This year, I managed to get to seven before collapsing. I tell them that I have always wished I could drop and easily do 25 push-ups and ask if they think I could do that. Always the answer is yes. When I ask how, the students tell me that I need to consistently do push-ups and gradually add more repetitions each time. Then I ask them how they could get better at reading or studying. The kids quickly make the connection that learning is much the same way—to grow we have to consistently work at it and gradually increase the difficulty of the content. The same type of hard work will bring positive results.

Publicly doing push-ups is usually a one-shot deal to make a point in class. But this year, when I next saw my period 4B class, they announced that it was time for me to do my push-ups. When I started to bluster, they called me on it and before I knew it, I was back down on the floor and have been almost every class since. Sometimes students join me, and no matter how out of breath I am, I’m glad I did it. Livvy is a task master and pushes me beyond my limits. Emma believes in me which helps me to believe in myself. The class noisily counts me through my reps and cheers me on when I start to falter. The new number goes up on the board and then we get back to world history.

In December, however, my confidence began to falter—I hit a record 30 push-ups but couldn’t do it again. I felt self-conscious and became afraid of failing. My numbers declined when I stopped as soon as it got hard. The other Emma in class recognized my head games and told me not to think so much. But the situation has not improved and sometimes to avoid doing the push-ups I say we don’t have enough time in class.

Throughout this ordeal, I learned how easily I can connect with my students’ struggles. My efforts in trying to learn this new skill are right there for all to see. It is not easy to fail and try again in such a public way. It’s hard to stay motivated for what now seems like a random goal. But that is exactly what so many of our students go through day after day. Just like me, it is the people who are holding them accountable, celebrating their achievements, dissecting their defeats, and encouraging them to keep going that is the key to their ultimate success. When I look at Arianna, Sydney, Brian, Tate, Liam, Livvy, and the Emmas, and hear them encourage me, I want to succeed and it gives me the courage to keep trying.

Kristin Hayes-Leite is the 2018 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. She teaches world history, government, and civics to ninth through twelfth grade students at Narragansett High School. As Social Studies Department Chair, she works to ensure students have multiple opportunities to engage as citizens. Kristin also serves on the statewide Civic Education Steering Committee to improve the quality of civic education in Rhode Island. She holds a BA in Communications, a MA in Teaching History, and a MEd in Reading and Literacy. Follow Kristin on Twitter @khayesleite.

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