Better and Better!

Adventures in cultivating a Growth Mindset for the long haul.

Boy…I’ve had a YEAR, you guys. I really have.

I guess I should back up to give you some context…so let’s rewind to November of 2015…I mean I could go back three years further than that…but I’ll spare you those details…maybe that’s a post for another day…so yes, let’s back up to November of 2015.

I’m feeling my usual (excess) amount of cortisol coursing through my veins as I attempt to quickly make some notes on things I need to do later for students by periods 3, 4, and 6 respectively, check my email, make a quick phone call home to a parent, stick my head out my classroom door as I hear my colleague’s approaching footsetps to let her know I need 1 minute before she comes in and we attempt to get our lesson plans for the week solidified, zip down to the copy machine because it was broken this morning in order to get set for the rest of the day, fit in some light stretching, adequately caffeinate myself to make up for the previous night’s insubstantial rest, then remember that coffee dehydrates so suck down half a bottle of water, only to realize I need to pee right as the bell rings and my adorably awkward tweens start to flod through my classroom door and push the thought from my mind as I launch into the next lesson of the day with 110% energy because otherwise what’s the point?

Typical day in a typical classroom — you’d never guess how strong the current of cortisol can be beneath that sunny surface!

This is a normal second period on a Tuesday in my middle school Spanish classroom in central Ohio. I’m just shuffling along, over-stressed and over-extended, and no, that in no way makes me special butterfly; this the life of every teacher, everywhere, and if anything, I’m really fortunate to work at the school and in the district that I do in Upper Arlington. But…during my regular lunch time walk (during which I try to let go of some of that darned cortisol in preparation to ramp it back up again in the afternoon) for the, oh, millionth time, my mind turns to the idea of “what if…” and completes the sentence with any number of dreams:

“…I had time to go to the bathroom during the day?”

“…my schedule permitted me to travel with my husband Justin when he gets invited to such amazing places around the world to speak at conferences?”

“…I could have some space and time to not just survive day to day but really dig in and figure out who I am and what makes me tick?”

…and on and on and on. One thing I should put out there right here in my first post is that I am a type-A, overly metacognitive anxious ninny. There. I said it. I think and I think and I think, and when I’m exhausted by my thoughts I think about them some more. It’s a blessing and a curse, but, more and more, I’m choosing to see it as the former because the latter is too dark and gloomy for my bright and sunny disposition, which I’m also choosing to embrace.

Hey look! It’s me and my generally sunny disposition! You may not be able to tell, but it’s also me with all of my overly anxious ways of thinking!

I’m not going to go into exactly what changed my day to day, because you can read about it over here on my other medium publication, MapMates from my sabbatical travels this year (or check out photos of my travels on my MapMates facebook page), but suffice it to say, thank goodness I’m a thinker! I finally did find a way to carve out some space and time for myself, and in so doing, have opened up such a window into so many passions and interests I never knew I had.

As I’ve explored these areas in a year that allowed me the space and time to follow my interests (pssst for more on how to carve out space and time go read my article: Why Every Teacher Should Take a Sabbatical — while I wrote it for teachers, I really think it could apply to anyone, in any profession!), I have realized there is a unifying theme to all of these interests and side projects and explorations:

Growth mindset

Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). — Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University who coined the term “Growth Mindset in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

It is fascinating to me that cultivating a growth mindset would end up being the area that has most sucked me in during my year away from the classroom; the irony, of course, is that teaching students to have a growth mindset is one of my very top priorities. Convincing young people who struggle that learning Spanish is not, in fact, just an inherent skill they have or don’t have, but rather is a skill that they can improve just like they can strengthen any muscle, is one of the hardest parts of my job as a teacher.

Image courtesy of http://www.bayschools.com/ces/Parents/GrowthMindset.aspx

But you know what? Never for a second have I doubted that it is true! Time and again during the past decade in the classroom, I have seen evidence that often students who struggle, but apply a growth mindset anyway to do the hard work required, believing it will pay off at some point, succeed more often than students who “naurally” are “gifted” at languages and coast on that skill. Never in a million years would I tell a child who struggles: “Well..you know…you’re probably right. Spanish just may not be for you. Maybe you just can’t do this 🤷‍♀️”

This begs the question: why would I ever tell myself such a limiting story? Over and over during my sabbatical year, as I came up against a challenge I didn’t know how to overcome, I caught myself applying a fixed mindset and was able to replace it with a growth mindset instead. I noticed that the more I did this, the easier it became and the more opportunities I saw to transfer the skill and apply it in new contexts across my life, in everything from exercise, to changing the way I eat, to hacking my own motivational tendencies and more.

Often I did not feel the desire or even ability to apply a growth mindset. Very often, I had to think “ just fake it til you make it” and just pretend I believed that working hard, applying strategies I knew had worked for me or others in the past, or seeking help would get me over the hump of solving a problem. More often yet , I found it helpful to keep this image in mind:

Growth Mindset happens at the juncture of discomfort and novelty.

Things worth accomplishing simply did not happen when I stayed safely ensconced within my comfort zone. And that word above, “magic”, is truly accurate in my opinion. Nearly every time I forced myself to step outside of where I felt comfortable, safe and sure of myself, into uncomfortable, risky or unknown territory, something absolutely amazing happened.

Two stories come to mind immediately:

First — in true first-world-problem fashion, while reflecting on my sabbatical travels, I thought to myself: Boy…I know I’ve been some amazing places this year…but what I shame I didn’t make it to Finalnd.

Stopping myself before my fixed mindest could take over, I replaced that thought: Oh wait…a friend of my husband lives in Sweden and has already been so helpful in helping me develop some contacts in his home country this year! Maybe he knows teachers in nearby Finland? I don’t want to be a nuisance or eat up his time on a wild goose chase…but maybe I’ll just ask in a quick message, with a tone of “no worries whatsoever if you’re too busy or can’t think of anyone! Just had to check!”

One short facebook message later, not only does this wonderful human being know a Finnish guy, he’s put me in contact with him, and THAT guy knows a whole slew of Finnish teachers! Better yet, those Finnish teachers are all eager to welcome me with open arms not only into their schools to observe but also into their homes to stay and save money while I travel! One day later my tickets to Finland are booked and I am eagerly awaiting my visit to the educational mecca to stay with 3 incredibly kind, generous teachers for a week while I visit their schools and learn from their system!

Another example, earlier this year, after receiving yet another “Thanks for applying but we’re sorry to inform you your application was not accepted…” e-mail from one organization or another, I found myself thinking: “Wow…there are so many exciting grants and scholarships out there for teachers. Too bad I’ll never be one of the recipients.”

I again hit the pause button on these thoughts and instead reframed: “Oh wait…there’s a Fulbright-Hays “Teaching the Andes” grant through the Ohio State University right here in Columbus, Ohio that goes to Ecuador and Peru this summer? And the due date to apply is in a week? Well…why not throw my hat in the ring? After all, my CV is already up to date and my colleagues and superiors already have letters of rec ready to go…they’d only need to minorly edit whom they address the letters to and re-upload…and hey! You never know! The worst thing that can happen is I get more practice applying for these kinds of things, right? Might as well.”

One month later, on the eve of my birthday, while in Costa Rica for more sabbatical school visits (already a dream come true), I’m walking along the beach at sunset having left my cell phone behind to really enjoy the moment. An hour later, I walk into the condo our generous friend is lending us and find out my husband has intercepted a phone call in my absence, letting me know I won the grant! I’m going to South America for a month, all expenses paid, and I’ll get to visit Machu Picchu and learn a rare indigenous Incan language: Quechua! Is this real life?!

Machu Picchu: here I come (back)! Yes — I actually already went once this year, so returning is a ridiculously wonderful opportunity to learn even more about Andean culture, economics, religion, and to engage in intensive language study of a rare, indigenous language: Quechua + participate in curriciulum development projects!

These are just two stories from a year of actively pursuing a growth mindset, and while they are big, awesome anecdotes, I have so many more experiences, big and small alike, that continue to propel me forward and push me to keep applying this mindset to every aspect of my life. I have a feeling that there is a responsibility, with the time and space a sabbatical has afforded me to step back and reflect, to share my observations about the power of Growth Mindset with others, I truly believe that cultivating a Growth Mindset is attainable for every single person and that it can a long way towards allowing us to dig in and feel much more fulfilled in our day jobs. I want to be relentlessly aggressive in pursuing a growth mindset and in sharing this (well-kept secret?) with absolutely everybody I come into contact with.

So stay tuned. This publication will likely have include a wide range of stories and articles related to happiness, the fields of education and popular psychology, fitness and exercise, diet and nutrition, and much more, all through the lens of growth and radical self-improvement. I hope to eventually start a weekly podcast as well! And, you can follow me on Twitter (@BetterBecky) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/BetterBecky)

Remember, growth is often not linear — we get better and better going 2 steps forward, 1 step back. ❤ Never give up when it feels like you’re going backwards — it may mean the next spurt forward is just around the corner!


Check out my other publication, MapMates for more details about my traveling sabbatical.

Follow me on Twitter:

Personal account: @beckyjoy

Sabbatical account: @map_mates

Growth mindset account: @betterbecky

Find me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/MapMates ← lots of pictures of my school visits around the world!

https://www.facebook.com/BetterBecky ←this is a new page but I will be using it more and more in tandem with this publication!

Follow me on Instagram:

Personal: @beckyjoy Instagram

Sabbatical: MapMates Instagram

Growth Mindset Instagram:TBA