It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but there’s something that I have been mulling over that I really wanted to share.

A few years ago, our school board made a concerted effort to champion growth mindset. I read the book, watched countless videos, and engaged in activities with my students to help them develop an understanding of growth mindset. We endeavoured to give students the language to explain the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, and to begin to develop that in themselves. Now, I had always prided myself on being someone who took risks and who was adaptable, so I thought that I must have a growth mindset. But the more I thought back on the opportunities I took and the opportunities I turned down, the more I realized just how much of my childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood has been lived with a fixed mindset. Over time, I developed a more nuanced understanding of these mindsets – that you can have fixed mindsets in some areas and at some points in time, but a growth mindset in other circumstances. However, one thing became clear – I did not see mistakes as positive, and because of that, I said no to many instances in which I thought I would fail.

I’m currently working through Jo Boaler’s course “How to Learn Math”, and it’s given me lots of food for thought around how our math program is run, and what I am doing as a teacher to maximize learning opportunities for my students. Recently, Jo Boaler shared a video she and her team produced called Rethinking Giftedness. Though brief, it really brought me back to the struggles and setbacks I experienced as a student in a self-contained gifted program who constantly compared herself with her peers.

I took the gifted test in Grade 3, around the time of my 7th birthday. I remember being told that I was a “borderline” case – that they decided to give me the benefit of the doubt because I was a year younger than my peers. The next academic year, I moved to a new school with a few classmates. Though I was excited by the prospect, I remember being very confused as to why one of my friends, the one we thought was hands down the smartest kid in our class, wasn’t with us. What had happened that we were here and he wasn’t? We had done the same enrichment projects in class (he made a really sweet project cube about the life cycle of frogs, while I made a booklet on dolphins with a terrible cyan-magenta cover, because my printer ran out of ink). He knew the answer to the question “Who invented the lightbulb?” when I surely didn’t (my answer was Benjamin Kennedy…a strange combination of Benjamin Franklin and JFK, who I remembered from my plastic US presidents ruler). What did it mean that someone said we were gifted and he was not?

As I progressed through my elementary and high school years, I moved from being at the top of my class to being “slightly above average”. And so I told myself that my classmates were just way smarter than me and that I shouldn’t even try to reach those same marks. Some of them had a knack for math, science, and business that I couldn’t fathom. So I vowed never to take physics, al/geo or business in high school (a decision that I really regretted when I realized in university how much I enjoy learning about business). They managed to do well in school while also being part of student council and the concert band and volunteering at the hospital. They got invitations to go to OELC and to represent our school at board events. All the while, I wondered to myself, why couldn’t I keep up? Had they been wrong about my label? Did this mean I wasn’t really all that different?

As a teacher, I continued to wrestle with this question. I continue to wrestle with always needing to prove that I am good enough, that I am doing a decent job. I continue to wrestle with the voice that tells me that I have to get it right the first time or I am failure.  Reflecting on this has also caused me to question some of the labels that we give students – or that we give ourselves – and the ways they limit potential and cause us to see ourselves as “less than”. It has pushed me to realize how I often don’t take professional risks when I think it might not turn out well.

I am continually chipping away at the parts of me that will not accept failure as an option, and I hope that one day soon, I will let go enough to just try without fear of the results.

(cross-posted from Scribbling on the Walls)