Students who believe they can learn and grow from challenges may be better able to weather this spring’s health concerns and academic disruptions, but encouraging students to build that kind of growth mindset in the middle of the pandemic can be a heavy lift for even the most committed teachers.
For a teacher who prides himself on building connections to students, Jose Clemente, a math teacher at Westbury High School in Houston, found the first few weeks of lockdown a scramble just to find students and convince them to tackle new technology and deal with disconnection from classmates—on top of the typical high school intimidation of calculus.
“For me, it was very shaky,” Clemente said. “There are moments of, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ But you fall back on what you believe in. ... When you get students into the virtual conferences, it’s all about acknowledging where we are right now and promoting resiliency, and I’m seeing a lot of students stepping up in this situation.”
At the start of this school year, Clemente and other Texas educators—including physics teacher Sergio Estrada of Riverside High School in El Paso; Melody Smiley, algebra teacher at Eagle Mountain Saginaw High School near Fort Worth; and Shelley Steele, a computer science, graphics and game design, and finance teacher at Ponder High School—joined OnRamps, a growth mindset program at the University of Texas-Austin that included online networks of teachers and support. That virtual training has allowed the teachers to stay in touch during the closures, and to share an unintended crash course on how to apply what they were learning during a time of frustration and uncertainty for themselves and their students.
The educators are already seeing that students who took a more growth-oriented approach before the pandemic have “adapted faster” to the move to distance learning, Estrada said. Clemente noted they are also more likely to be, “trying to build a broader sense of what is happening right now and to find ways to help.”
Next month the teachers will be among 20 teacher-fellows to come together as part of the Texas Mindset Initiative to develop research-based interventions to encourage a growth mindset in the disparate live and remote high school classrooms evolving in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. Mindset researchers led by David Yaeger at UT-Austin in the National Study of Learning Mindsets will pilot the interventions in short experimental trials with more than 1,000 teachers and 36,000 students across the state this fall, with an eye to quickly provide free tools and professional development for teachers nationwide.
The teachers explained a bit about what they are learning so far and how they are helping their students learn to adapt to their rapidly shifting school world.
The school closures and the broader pandemic have made even some high-achieving students uncertain of their future. How do you reinforce a growth mindset in the middle of a crisis?
Jose Clemente (at left): I acknowledge to my students that, you know, you really didn’t deserve this, but here we are, and I share inspiring stories of what they have done. It’s like, even in this, you have to keep moving forward, continue to help your peers and your community. ... We have a lot of programs here to help our community and a lot of our students volunteer. So just to see those things and make students aware of what they are doing, how they help their community right now, I think that that helps out a lot.
Sergio Estrada (at left): You have to establish from the beginning of the class that everybody is going to have questions ... especially now that we are only meeting once a week. I would say it took about three weeks to get to the point where they felt comfortable with sending me screenshots of their work throughout the day or asking questions. You have to make them feel comfortable opening up that they’re struggling to you. And that’s the big thing from growth mindset. What do you do when you have that struggle? I try to push onto them, ‘You use it as a learning opportunity. You ask questions, you can’t just give up.’
Distance learning environments require students to be a lot more self-directed, and research has shown a student’s mindset can really affect how easily they can ask for help. How has remote learning changed how you support your students when they struggle?
Melody Smiley (at left): I did notice a big change in [how students seek help]... I think kids are a lot more comfortable coming to ask for help in my virtual office hours or tutorials. I don’t know if maybe that’s because they’re not actually seen coming and asking for assistance? I think some kids who didn’t ask questions or come to tutorials in school are coming more now in the online format.
Clemente: There’s a lot more detective work for me. Sometimes kids aren’t exactly full of details of what they need. Every opportunity to make contact with a student, I will grab that opportunity—the food drive, sending out the [Advanced Placement] packets in the curbside distribution. ... We meet virtually, but some of the students aren’t there because they are working. So I record whatever classroom conversations that we had, so it can be more on-demand.
Estrada: For my [11th grade] physics class I was supposed to teach 100 kids at once and ... it was hard for those students to start asking questions. I would write to one and say, ‘why are you not doing the work?’ ... [The student] tells me, ‘I don’t understand’ and I ask, ‘Why didn’t you ask questions?’ And he says, ‘Because I didn’t want to bother you.’
One of the resources I use is Remind [a messaging app]. And I tell the kids, ‘look, sometimes you’re going to have questions while you’re not at school, you’re going to have questions at 8 o’clock ... Go ahead and message me and I’ll be happy to help you.’ And I do have kids sometimes message me kind of late. ... I don’t mind that, and I want them to be comfortable asking me questions.
How are you planning for next fall, if your school moves to distance learning again?
Estrada: I’m going to need to establish very early that [doing the physics class online] is going to be difficult. And that’s OK. That’s part of the learning process to get out of your comfort zone, and it’s OK to ask for help. One of the things that made the transition to distance learning a little bit easier was I already had those personal connections with my students. Going forward, that’s something that is going to be difficult to establish from the start. I have some activities I usually do at the beginning of the year ... I’m thinking about how I build those relationships online.
Clemente: I’m planning for both ways, virtually and not. If we start virtually, we have to know how are we going to build relationships. What I was thinking is acknowledging where we are and that we have to continue moving forward learning in a different environment. In terms of building relationships, we will probably talk a lot more in the first week about how we can be resilient in the relationships we are in.
Steele: I feel like as we approach the next school year, heaven forbid we have to be online again, ... I’ve not even had time to sit down and think about how these last two months really went. Right now, my concern is that my kids come out of this and grow up successful; hopefully they’ll have learned something and feel like they’ve at least conquered this hurdle in their lives. ... I feel like teaching isn’t the hard part; the hard part is getting the kids involved and making sure they stay engaged.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.