I am always a student, and sometimes a teacher.
Having a piece of paper called a degree issued by a university is not a message of, “Welp, you’ve learned all there is to know.” If anything, it made me aware of how much I don’t know.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Let’s take the field of education. 13 years ago, I observed a teacher in a classroom and thought, “This isn’t really that hard, I can do this no problem.” Then I began learning more in college classes, followed by the real learning that starts with the bewildering feeling of having my own classroom for the first time, which lead me to think, “Ok, I really have no idea what I’m doing.” This change in confidence and awareness of how much I don’t know is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect:
After 13 years in my own classroom, I think I’m at the “It’s starting to make sense” dot, but I still occasionally revert back to “I’m never going to understand this” (Which I would change the title to, “Wow, I have A LOT to learn, I’m overwhelmed”). What has drawn me from that downward slope into an upward slope of confidence has been mentor-instilled grit in the face of their failures. Namely, my dad.
The Importance of Mentor-Modelled Failure
Once I arrived at the lowest point of confidence in the Dunning-Kruger effect chart, there was a crossroad: keep going or quit. To quit meant to change professions, or at the very least change my roll within education away from teacher. To continue meant finding a way to increase my confidence in my own ability to learn how to become a better teacher. For this, I greatly benefit from having a mentor, someone who’s “been there” and has my best interest at heart. Dad was a teacher that transitioned to farming full time, though in reality he just changed from a classroom of 30 to a classroom of 75, because on a daily basis he works with high school and college students working on the farm.
Frequently, I observe dad (and mom and my brother) avidly taking risks (“Let’s sell flowers!” That didn’t work. “Let’s stop wholesaling produce and open up little retail stands!” That does work.) and learning from the failures. The flower failure was 10 years ago, and this year, they are revisiting them in the form of sunflowers to be sold at the fall corn maze and cider press. Another risk that might end in failure. Interestingly though, I noticed that these risks aren’t wreckless, they are calculated, researched risks. The flower failure? They observed farms in other states doing it successfully. The new donut barn? They observed and spoke with a similar business out of state, using them as a mentor (The ideal mentorship is actually mutually beneficial, as in this case, where both sides can learn from the other on trials and successes).
The failures of those I respect and consider mentors, especially mom, dad, and my brother at Suter’s Produce, I don’t focus on the failure so much as what they do as a result.
- How do they seek out more knowledge?
- Do they pout about the mistakes that lead to the failure?
- What role does failure play in their actions?
Answers through the lens of dad:
- Read relentlessly. Talk to someone that knows more than you. Get feedback from employees, customers, and family.
- No. Disappointment, sure, but not dwelling.
- Failure is information, and fruits more knowledge than the successes. They do not become risk-averse, and maintain enthusiasm for risk taking. They don’t take it so seriously that it eats their enjoyment of life. Failure can be downright comical to them.
My observations of my mentors’ failures shows me what I can and should be doing when I fail, (or when I feel like I know very little about part of my profession). It gives me confidence that through a combination of endurance, strategic info gathering, and a light heart will lead to progress and a higher frequency of success. There will inevitably be setbacks, but they aren’t even really setbacks, they are small steps forward because of the information gleaned from them.
Sidenote: It’s ok to quit. Not quit-the-team-once-the-season-has-started kind of quit, but more of a “pivot direction” kind of quit. Hate where you are working? If there is no reasonable remedy, change jobs. Don’t like your college major? (I was a psychology major…), switch! Some will view these as giving up. I view them as pivots.
Growth Mindset in Teaching
The billions of little cells in our brains called neurons are forming new connections when we learn, like when I was learning to tie my shoes. We aren’t born with a fixed number of things we can learn, as if you’ve maxed out your skills in a particular area, like “I’m just not good at math” or “I’m not a good cook”. These are examples of a fixed mindset. The belief that with intentional practice and guidance, we can improve in any skill set. You could learn how to better cut vegetables, measure ingredients, and follow a recipe to become a better cook. This is a growth mindset.
As a teacher, I have been guilty of perceiving a student as having a fixed set of abilities, that maybe they just weren’t good at X. I’ve intentionally changed my thinking now, that the problem may be me, that I need to scaffold the learning in a different way or at a different pace for different students. They are all capable of improving. If they have struggled in the past, it may be necessary to first convince them that they CAN learn the material before trying to shove them towards it, especially if they’ve struggled in the past and have a strong fixed mindset themselves.