It was 5 months into the school year and I was devastated.

After 15 years of successful teaching in high school, I concurrently began working in a local elementary school and I was really struggling. What had worked well until now just wasn’t working there. Despite my best efforts, the students were often misbehaving. I was really disappointed in myself and in my classroom. I was scheduled to have a meeting with my principal, and I was certain that his feedback would be negative.

What happened, though, completely shocked me and opened my eyes to a profoundly different style of leadership.

The principal started our meeting by praising the many efforts that I had been making to grow as a teacher. “I appreciate,” he began, “that you take time to visit other classrooms and try to learn from them. I notice that when we meet weekly, you bring many questions to our discussion and are very open to growing and learning new ideas. I value that you are learning a lot and developing your skills as a teacher.”

“But…” I stammered, “my classroom is a disaster! I am struggling to keep the students behaving well, and I am very far from the ideas of student-led education that this school encourages. I don’t know if I can ever become a successful teacher in this environment.”

“I am not concerned,” he confidently replied. “My perspective is very different than yours. I know that it takes time for new teachers to acclimate and learn the culture of our school, but I am very impressed with your efforts to grow and develop as a teacher. In our school, we believe in a growth mindset—not just for our students, but for our teachers as well. I see you as a devoted teacher with a great desire to learn and grow. I notice and appreciate the small changes you are making and see them as a sign of the future excellence that I know will be coming. I trust in you and in the process, and I am confident that over time you will become the teacher that you want to be.”

Three years later, I am so grateful to say that my classroom has been transformed. While there is always plenty of room for growth, I now understand the value of building structures, especially for middle schoolers, in creating a successful learning environment. I have learned to create classroom expectations with my students—clarifying what we want the class to look like, sound like, and feel like— and then hold them accountable to those expectations that they helped set. I have learned that the one who talks the most, learns the most, and have shifted my lessons to be more student-led and interactive. I have learned how to explain the “why” of our learning so that my students are more engaged and to design creative and/or project-based assessments to help students of all abilities succeed in demonstrating their learning.

Most importantly, as I manifest the vision that the principal had for me, I am learning to see my students with that same growth mindset; to believe in their ability to learn and to be successful, and in doing so I am privileged to bring that vision to fruition.

Growth mindset is at the core of how the leadership team at the school treats every person that walks through its doors, both students and staff alike, and has been a main component of many aspects of my journey. One way this is implemented is through the institution of “learning partners.” Every member of the staff (including administration) is partnered with someone with whom they meet regularly (usually for a half hour every week or two). They are invited to set goals and are supported to become the best version of themselves in the workplace.

For me, having this space to ask questions and be guided toward better practices was essential to my growth. It was incredibly helpful knowing where to turn for support or guidance—whether to get feedback on a fledgling idea or ask advice on how to handle frustrations or other issues. Throughout the week, I jot down questions as they come up, and bring them up at my next meeting. Then problems can get addressed and fixed as they come up, and frustrations don’t metastasize over time.

The learning partner is designed to empower, facilitate, and support, but not to own the problem or to “teach a solution.” I am considered to be the expert of my classroom and my partner helps me find the answers that talk to me. Instead of telling me what I should do, he would say, “What do you think about….? Have you considered…?” Suggesting ideas and letting me choose what resonates most with me really helped me find my own path and confidence as a teacher.

An example of how my learning partner helped my thinking shift was in the arena of classroom expectations and discipline issues. Originally, I assumed my job was to figure out how to run my classroom perfectly, so there would not be any discipline problems. That, however, seemed a goal impossible to achieve. Over time and through our discussions, I have learned to see clarifying classroom expectations as part of an ongoing dynamic process. I try to touch base about them in class every day. I might ask my students: “What did we do well yesterday?” or “Where did we struggle to meet our expectations? How might we handle that better next time?” Even challenging days can then become opportunities for meaningful conversations and growth.

Another component that was very helpful to my journey as a teacher, is the culture of peer support prevalent in the school. Teachers are encouraged to visit other classrooms and ask for guidance from other teachers. I have found that to be a great resource on many levels.

Early in my first year of teaching middle school, I asked my students to summarize an English paragraph of Humash. Having taught many years in high school, it was astounding to me that my students were confused, wondering, “how do you want me to summarize?” Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that summarizing was a task that could possibly be unclear.

I reached out to the school’s English teacher, and she generously shared many of her non-fiction text study tools, including a simple technique to summarize. I found my students thrived with the crossover between disciplines; it helped them feel more confident in what was expected of them.

Another important component that helped me grow is that the school makes available additional teacher resources, specifically, time with a professional teacher coach. The coach helps me transform some of my vague ideas into concrete practices.

For example, most of the students at this school do not come from strong Jewish backgrounds. I, therefore, wanted to create a structure within my classroom where every weekend, students would be required to share some of what we learned with their parents, and report back on Monday about those discussions. This would give them an “authentic purpose” to their learning and encourage them to make sure they knew the material well enough to be able to share it coherently. It also could be beneficial to the parents’ experiences of Judaism. Until then, however, I had only used the “assignments” feature on Google classroom, but I wanted this process to be more dynamic and was not sure how to make that happen.

I shared the draft I had written with a teacher coach and explained my thinking. She returned to me a well-worded paragraph with guidance on how to set it up as a Google Classroom “question” which would enable all the students to be part of a more dynamic discussion about these ideas.

This process became a weekly practice that enhanced my students’ understanding and integration of the material which we were learning. I received such positive feedback from the parents as well, that we hope to make this a component of every middle school Jewish studies class this coming year.

The growth mindset perspective at my school also opened my mind to new, creative ways to handle discipline problems. One of my students, Joseph (not his real name), had a lot of difficulty sitting still in class. He was constantly being reminded to stay on task and not distract others. Teachers would frequently have him fill out a “reflection sheet” to write down how he might improve his behavior, but unfortunately, it did not change much.

One teacher sat with him and asked, “Joseph, how can we support you to be successful in class? What can we do to help you?” His first reaction was to complain. “I don’t like that teachers are always calling my name and telling me what I am doing wrong.” The teacher empathized with Joseph’s frustration and asked him what he preferred they do instead. “How,” she wondered, “could they redirect you in a way that would feel comfortable to you?”

With further discussion, they decided to write a few sentences on an index card that would remind him to think about his behavior and how he can be his best self. The teacher told the staff about this idea and left the card on the desk. The next day, in the chaos of class, I originally forgot about the card. It was only after I had gently redirected Joseph twice that I remembered. At his next misbehavior, I continued teaching the class as I grabbed the card and subtly handed it to him.

What happened next astonished me.

Joseph took the card and placed it just under his desk where he alone could see it. He spent a few minutes silently reading the card to himself. When he was done, he turned the card over and placed it on the desk in front of him. His demeanor had completely changed; he was calm, focused, and did not need redirection for the rest of the entire period.

I used the card occasionally over the next few weeks and an entirely different child began to emerge. It was such a successful strategy that when I taught him the next year, he was even able to complete some “enrichment work” in my class—reserved only for the children who are most capable and successful.

In the introduction to Hovot Hatalmidim, R. Klonymous Kalman Shapira (the Rebbe of Piaseczno) writes:

A teacher or father must see the children in front of them as great souls that have not yet been chiseled; and that it is incumbent upon them to raise them and make them flourish. He is a gardener in the garden of Hashem who must work and guard it. And even if he sees children who appear to him to be bitter and have bad character traits, he should know that the nature of unripe angels and soul-seeds is to taste bitter but to be filled with nectar in their maturity.

Watching Joseph’s transformation helped me to understand this more deeply and gave me more clarity on my role as a teacher.

Overall, I feel that the guiding principle of growth mindset was foundational in providing an environment where I could feel safe to explore ideas, experiment, learn from my failures, and grow as a teacher.

I am deeply grateful for the resources that I have been given. My experience has brought me to passionately believe that given the proper environment of a supportive growth mindset, every teacher can transform themselves and their students.

Yonina Schlussel, MS OTR, has taught at Torah Academy of Milwaukee for over fifteen years and at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School for three. Her articles have been published in Ami Magazine. She received an award for her Parsha Art Journal Project by the Coalition for Jewish Learning in Milwaukee.

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