Picture a circle on the center of a blank page. Along the circumference of the circle are six spokes, evenly spaced. If you were to write down one word for each of the spokes that defined who you are, what would you write?
For me, these words are: female, older sister, Chinese, Canadian, teacher, learner... These are important parts of my identity, they fundamentally shape who I am and how others view me, however, if I am not careful, they can also label me and lock me in. We all have assumptions about ourselves that can hinder us from reaching our true potential. To be more specific, I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine who told me about an article she read that said the reason why many females are overqualified for their jobs are because women tend not to apply for a position if they feel they do not fulfill all the requirements, whereas males will if they feel they fit most of the criteria. I wondered how many opportunities I missed because I told myself I wasn't good enough to try.
I recently interviewed for a position that required teaching AP physics. With my measly, almost-two years of full time teaching, and zero experience with physics (or AP for that matter), I definitely did not think I had all the requirements for the job. But I thought about what my friend told me, and I said- to no one in particular- "Heck, what do I have to lose?" Lo and behold... I was stunned when I landed an interview... and even more amazed when they called me back for a second one.
If such a small shift in my thinking could have led to such a significant outcome, no doubt this can apply to all areas of life and learning as well. I am currently reading Mindset by Professor Carol Dweck. I wonder a lot about how I can help my students uncover the hidden assumptions they have about themselves in order to develop a growth mindset. We talked about what it means to have a fixed versus growth mindset at the beginning of the year and what that looked like for different people. We explored the nature of science and how important it is to acknowledge failure in science. We discussed our ideas about how success is like an iceberg; magnificent and grand on the outside, when in fact much of it is submerged and hidden below the surface. I try to make it real for my students and have them connect it to their own lives, but most of all I'm trying to build a classroom culture that enables them to feel safe taking risks, making mistakes, and to fearlessly embrace new challenges. I struggle with this every day. Sometimes I feel like I am making good headway, and other times I feel like I'm picking my students up by the feet and trudging them through the mud, shouting, "Come with me! There is a light at the end of the tunnel!!! Just keep moving!"
And with that last bit of imagery, I shall kindly remind myself that learning is a process, and that we each move on our own time.
When I think about Carol Dweck's research on mindset I am reminded of my grandfather, who, throughout all the years I have known him, has shown me in his own way that it is NEVER too late to learn a new skill or to grow your mind. When I was eight or nine, I remember grandpa practicing to get his truck driver's license. He had only been in Canada for a few years at that point, had never driven a truck before, did not have access to one, and was unable to take lessons, but that did not stop him. He took us out to Canadian Tire and bought a toy truck with remote controls. I remember watching him maneuver it around the carpet in his bedroom, studying it from different angles, gathering information about the spacing, and so on. He practiced like this diligently for days before his driving exam. Even I tired of watching the little truck move around in endless loops, turns, and parking maneuvers, but grandpa always aimed for perfection. This was the type of man my grandfather was.
I used to hate going to Chinese school on the weekends, but grandpa insisted that I persevere because he was afraid that I would lose my heritage and that my future children would forget their ancestry. This thought frightens me also. I never used to think learning Chinese was very important. I just knew how going to Chinese school made me feel - stupid and inadequate. It was like being sent to a correctional facility for not being born to the right circumstances. To hide my feelings of inadequacy I worked even harder to get good grades. I memorized difficult words, I practiced spelling them out over and over, and people told me how smart I was.
It wasn't until one day my grandpa said something to me that I finally was able to breathe. I didn't even know it then, but I was suffocating. I had been trapped by the need to prove how good I was, that I too could read and write, two things that seemed to come so effortlessly to others. I used to cry myself to sleep because it seemed that no matter how hard I tried or how much I worked at it, I would never be fluent in Chinese like my family. So, when grandpa said those words to me I knew the facade was up. I didn't have to pretend anymore. He said, "Even if you are not very smart or talented at something, with effort and practice we can make up for the things we lack. This is me, your grandfather." And then he said, "You and I, we are both hard workers, no?" I will never know what prompted grandpa to say those words to me, but I just know that when he did, at that very moment, I felt true clarity and a huge sense of relief. It didn't matter that I wasn't great at something, what mattered was that I tried.
"All the vacations!"
"Only work 10 months of the year."
Anyone who's ever cited the above reasons for why they became a teacher is a liar, and anyone who assumes the above is actually true has clearly never lived with a teacher. While I can confidently dispel the myth that teachers do not live at school, I cannot say that the dwelling of a teacher (or any educator, for that matter) has not effectively become a school, in the sense that the "teacher hat" rarely ever (truly) comes off.
While I'm sad to say that my year of teaching mathematics to a brilliant group of students in Kazakhstan is now over, I am happy to report that I will be working as a science teacher at a Canadian international school in Seoul, Korea come Fall. Currently unemployed, I have been spending my summer months contemplating the new school year to come. As a new teacher, I get thrown with a lot of advice:
"Make learning interesting"
"Don't just lecture"
"Let your students have FUN!"
"Whatever you do, don't smile until December"
"Whoever said not to smile until December is throwing out a bunch of bull-crap"
I mean, all this advice is helpful in some way, but mostly, I worry. I worry because I know that the advice usually stems from some past experience; perhaps my adviser has had a brilliant teacher in the past and wants to give me some insight on best practices, or maybe the experience was so traumatic that it is a warning against what I might become. I know, and am reminded every day, that teachers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the lives of their students, whether its for better or for worse. I would be lying if I said that thought has never kept me up at night.
So what does a young, novice teacher like me do during their free time? Well, this summer (like the last, and probably for many summers to come) has been filled with a lot of reading; books about science education, classroom management, cognitive psychology, teaching and learning . . . you name it. Books, and also a lot of web-surfing in search of inspiration and ideas for the next school year. The great thing about being a teacher today, versus 50 years ago even, is the incredible, vast, and extensive amount of information available literally (excuse the cliche) at our fingertips. With the advent of online textbooks, YouTube, massive open online courses (MOOCs), I really have no excuse for not knowing better. The issue now becomes knowing how to efficiently and effectively conduct searches, filter out the big ideas, and not get caught in fun yet unproductive Pintrest spirals, or the ever-so-looming YouTube vortex.
I find myself constantly striving to be perfect. I work, rework, and surgically remove minute details in my lesson plans until I am convinced they are just so. Then along will come some new insight I've read in a book or online article and I will repeat the process all over again. I worry about many things:
Will my students find this topic interesting? Can they relate this to their own lives?
What will they remember 10 years from now?
Is this an example of content-based, activity-based, or inquiry based teaching?
How can I work towards developing lessons that are more minds-on rather than hands-on?
How can I better scaffold this project to ensure top-quality work?
. . . and so on.
The result of all this worrying is twofold: 1) my brain is now attempting to process more information than it can actually take on, and 2) very, very slow progress with my unit planning. I realize that I need to just give myself permission to just be okay with being a novice. I mean, there really is nothing more liberating than knowing you are not the best and that it is okay (splendid, even) to keep learning - that is a belief I want to instill in my students too! Of course, knowing all this, it is still a constant struggle to be mindful of it, and I am sure I will be reminding myself (and my students) of this more than once.
So here's to wanting to be a great teacher, but okay with being good (modest?) one (for now).
I have been doing a lot of reading (self-help mostly) and thinking (about the future) lately, though none of this has resulted in any sort of definitive action. This past week has been filled with many ups and downs, and it was one of those weeks that felt as if the downs tremendously overshadowed the ups. I have behaved in ways in which have made me ashamed of my character - I gossiped, and I complained - a lot. I am also guilty of being a massive consumer; a consumer of lies, outrageous acts of injustice, and rumor. I am sick of the complaints and I am tired of the negativity. It is time to break myself out!
I briefly thought of titling this blog post "Commitments for the Future" but that just made it sound vague and ironically non-committal. The future can mean tomorrow, or it might be some abstract entity far off in time and space. In the end, I resolved to come up with a list of "Do Now's" (so named after a common teaching strategy described in Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov). As a good friend once advised me, "New Year's Resolutions are a scam. If there are things you really want to commit to doing, then they should just be 'goals.' You don't have to wait for a new year to start living the life you want," (his approximate sentiments in my words).
Without further ado, my current list of Do Now's:
1. Create more, consume less.
2. Stop complaining! Nobody wants to hang around a killjoy.
3. Drink more water.
4. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
5. Train for a half-marathon. (Run a half marathon before the end of the year).
6. Implement a "no eating out week" at least once a month.
7. Stop eating at least three hours before bed! Otherwise your sleep will be uncomfortable and your belly will feel like a stack of bricks (I know this from experience).
8. Work to pay off student loans.
9. Invest in a retirement plan before the year is out.
10. Read at least 10 minutes a day.
11. Level up in adult-ness. (Work in progress).
Admittedly, the goals themselves need some work in terms of specificity, timeliness, and a way of measurement. But hey, I think it's a good start.
International math educator who writes, occasionally.