Sometimes the universe sends you exactly what you need. This was certainly the case in the middle of my second year as an elementary principal, when I was defeated and day dreaming of other career paths, and happened to stumble into a Growing Early Mindsets™ workshop facilitated by GEM author Dr. Kendra Coates.
The audacious belief that learning potential is unknown and unknowable resonated. The optimism and passion around shifting mindsets to change student outcomes energized. Little did I understand that this would be the first step in a big journey that not only would impact me in profound ways but help to transform outcomes for our entire school community.
We started this work by looking at our own mindsets as the adults in the system. Did we really believe in limitless possibilities for our students? What were our own fixed beliefs about teaching and learning that created obstacles for kids? This was tough stuff. When I first joined this team six years ago, I met a staff of deeply passionate and committed individuals who were working hard for their students. Our school is a rural Title 1 school with high poverty. Our staff knew trauma-informed teaching without it being a buzzword; the trick was in the finding the balance between social and emotional learning and improving student outcomes.
Growth mindset addresses both the hearts and minds of students and staff. By embracing the productive struggle and helping our students understand that through doing hard things they have the opportunity to grow their brains, we have unleashed a wave that has contributed to our student growth landing in the top ten percent of our state. The students get it in ways where adults struggled. They saw innately how growth mindset worked in a variety of settings including social, emotional, and academic fronts. We shifted the ways that we praised students and worked to point out perseverance and tenacity. It was like a beautiful organic bloom that took off like ivy. We used the words rigor and joy to guide our work; that both were possible and critical for student success.
In our field, too often initiatives are poised to be oppositional, as if social and emotional learning is somehow polar opposite from academic achievement. These soundbites drive me bananas. Our students are not pendulums, let’s please stop the incessant sway. We must think bigger than that. We must give our students the opportunity to thrive in all aspects of humanity and without skills in all of these areas, from negotiating the social world to problem solving complex mathematics, they have the potential to be limited by our actions. The way to do this with grace and style is growth mindset work. It is not a curriculum that fits nicely in a box; it’s more like the air you breathe as you navigate learning.
We are in our fourth year of utilizing Growing Early Mindsets in our preschool through first grade classrooms. When I wander through the halls of our building I hear excited conversations about growing neurons. In a recent visit to preschool a little boy bounced over to me with a new drawing of his brain that he wanted me to hang in my office. In fourth grade classrooms students are goal-setting and talking about demonstrating perseverance even when it’s hard. It’s become the thick strong thread that weaves our school culture together. It reminds me of the wisdom of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That is what growth mindset has done for our group of wicked smart educators. They hold a relentless belief that every child has an unlimited capacity to learn, and they are leading with rigor and joy. The future is bright.
About the Author: Kourtney Ferrua has served as principal at Wascher Elementary of McMinnville School District in Oregon since 2013. As a previous kindergarten teacher and instructional coach, Kourtney is passionate about early childhood education, trauma-informed practice and strong teaching and learning with a balance of rigor and joy. Kourtney first became an ardent believer in the transformational power of education as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco while working with inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Kourtney lives with her husband and two children in McMinnville, OR.