Sometimes I need vacation time to simply slow down and take stock. The person I am today is miles away from the person I was four years ago – both physically and figuratively. If I am lucky, a 30-year old me will feel exactly the same four years later.
How have I grown in the past four years? If I could on my choose three ways in which I am better today than I ever was, I would say I am calmer in the face of ambiguity, I truly listen to people to a much greater degree, and I understand that skills and qualities are not innately born. They can be learned over time.
This final piece of learning is the focus of today’s post. I believe my ability to adapt in Korea as both a foreigner and as a teacher revolves around adopting a growth mindset.
The growth mindset has been uttered by various philosophers in many disciplines. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, is the foremost modern researcher on the subject. Her model contrasts two mindsets.
One, the fixed mindset, is the belief that abilities are innate. Either we are born with a certain skill or we are not and no matter how much we practice we can only expect marginal improvement. Phrases coinciding with this mindset include, “I am bad at math,” or “She’s a natural.”
I struggled with this mindset for most of my childhood and young adulthood. People told me I was intelligent and I internalized a view of myself as “intelligent.” As a result, I perpetuated two behaviors detrimental to progress: I only sought out easy problems (so to perpetuate my self-image) and I shied away from anything I thought difficult (so not to endanger that image). This self-limiting mindset really hindered my ability in football, weightlifting, school, and social situations. The self-limiting nature of the fixed mindset has been a significant hurdle to overcome.
Dweck’s other mindset, the growth mindset, is very much the opposite. People espousing a growth mindset believe that their abilities and personal qualities can be developed over time through the process of sustained effort, frequent quality feedback, and a regular adjustment of methods and procedures (a process Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”). People who show a growth mindset say things like, “This is very difficult and I am struggling right now, but I can improve if I just keep at it,” or “I’m proud of how you stuck with that difficult problem and worked out the answer.” Rather than shy away from challenges to protect their self-image, those with a growth mindset seek out difficult material and view it as a portal to a new level of understanding.
While my mindset today is far from perfectly growth-oriented (Dweck herself says that everyone’s mindset rests on a continuum and changes with context), I can feel myself sliding towards more of a growth mindset.
For example, after my first day of substitute teaching, I drove home dejected. I was far out of my element, outgunned by first-graders. I had no idea of how to control a class and it showed. They ran wild like an unlocked zoo.
“Mr. S, can you help me?”
“Mr. S., I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Mr. S., I need to get water.”
The old me would have dropped the assignment (and teaching) altogether. However, after taking a deep breath, I realized I merely needed to change my approach. I needed to walk taller, speak more forcefully, and assume my place on top of the hierarchy if I had any hope of managing the classroom.
The next day I did just that. I put my foot down, threw my shoulders back, and took no mess. The day went far better. Lessons were learned and cemented.
I had many tough days thereafter, but I never left an assignment ready to quit. From that moment, I knew I could be a substitute teacher if I awakened myself to feedback, learned, and adjusted. In other words, I had to grow.
I’ve had to do much of the same in Korea. Whether it involves speaking to students, planning lessons, giving directions, monitoring class activities, or interacting with co-teachers, learning opportunities came early and often. I welcomed this feedback (whether it came from my co-teacher, the students’ performance, or my own assessment) and strove to make changes. Months later, I waltzed where I once stumbled and glided through lessons that once proved turbulent.
This produced a self-reinforcing cycle that lies at the heart of the growth mindset. As I acquired feedback, made adjustments, and witnessed personal progress, my confidence grew. As my confidence grew, I walked taller, threw my shoulders further back, and spoke with aplomb. These physical cues led to even more positive responses from students. In other words, as you struggle through difficult problems, you come out stronger, which increases your confidence to handle future problems.
A growth mindset is not always easy to implement. I myself have good days and bad days. On those, bad days I feel out of my element. I fear permanent incompetence. However, the good days continue to outnumber the bad. I sense progress and feel myself growing. As long as I trend in the right direction and maintain composure in the face of adversity, then I have nothing to fear.
I found this little guy in a Namak riverside park only to learn someone had turned him into metal. I was sad.
This is a typical pedestrian alley in Mokpo. I love the gardens, the small side shops, and especially the street food tents. I will always appreciate Mokpo’s pedestrian-friendly landscape.
Students further expanded the picture. Now I have blue hair. I’m also handsome, apparently.
The students had a class basketball tournament. It was fun hearing everyone cheering in a packed gym.
I missed school lunches when I was on vacation. Today we ate a fish soup, strawberries, spicy octopus stir-fry, seasoned fishcake, and (of course) white rice.