It was Friday afternoon. Kindergarten in January: need I say more? I was tired and my students were wired.
As I desperately tried to get through the day’s math lesson at the rug, one sweet soul in the back - the one who had been pushing boundaries all day - kept grabbing materials off the art cart and fiddling with them. I had given him a couple reminders to be respectful of our class materials and leave them on the art cart, so my patience was wearing thin. Suddenly a loud snap rang out through the room and I looked over and saw that one of the class rulers had broken into small pieces that were scattered at this little friend’s feet. The whole room grew silent and every face turned to me to see how I would respond.
The weight of their eyes was heavy on me, as I realized that they learn from each of my seemingly small responses and actions. A number of emotions flew through my head and, in my frustration, I nearly gave in to all my more traditional teacher responses by using sharp words and sending this kiddo up to the office for an OOPS slip and a talking-to from the powers that be. This response would have saved time and energy and would have kept my math lesson on schedule. Instead, though, I paused. What message would that sort of response send to this individual, and to all the other students watching me? How would it fuel connection, relationship, and trust? As I looked across the room and into this child’s eyes, I could tell he was surprised and saddened by how the ruler had shattered. His 5-year-old mind had not anticipated that outcome. He had made a mistake.
Eventually, I took a breath, put down my pointer, and said to the whole group, “How many of you have broken something before?” Many of the students had a story: a broken toy, dish, or lamp. One boy even talked about when he broke his leg. “How did you feel when you broke those things?” Students shared words like “embarrassed,” “sad,” “worried.” I said, “Me too. I broke a plant in here last week, do you remember? I felt sad about it, and a little embarrassed, like you all felt, and like E. might be feeling now. Do you remember that Mrs. Jill helped me clean it up, and told me not to worry? Can we help our friend E. clean up, and tell him it’s ok to make mistakes?” The class jovially jumped up and tidied up the mess, singing a round of Daniel Tiger’s song, “It’s Ok to Make Mistakes!”
I gave E. a big hug and he whispered, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tibbitts.” Later in the afternoon, during Pre-Frontal Cortex Time (GEM 8 Learning Routine), he and I sat together and talked about the event, and why the ruler broke. We made a plan for the next rug time, which included some ideas for things he could fidget with that wouldn’t break, like a squishy ball. Rather than feeling shame, E. walked away with his dignity intact and a plan in place for the next time. E.’s classmates learned how to treat someone who has made a mistake. I was humbled by what might have been that day and grateful for the path I chose.
This was a rather long story to sum up what teaching Growing Early Mindsets™ (GEM) has meant for me. I’ve been teaching GEM for five years now, and have come to find out that it is not just a Social and Emotional Learning curriculum, nor is it simply a tool to help students develop and hold a growth mindset (though these are both wonderful reasons to teach GEM). GEM, for me, has become more of a way of being. It has transformed the way I view student behavior and student potential, which has changed the way I speak to students, the way I set up my classroom, the way I arrange my daily schedule, and more. Teaching GEM has also inspired me to reexamine the fixed mindsets I’ve held in my own life and confront my own perfectionist tendencies. I’ve become more willing to make, own, and learn from mistakes, seek and embrace challenges, and love the person I am and the person I am still becoming – all qualities that make me a better teacher, mother, wife, friend, and human being.
I’ve taught GEM for five years, but my experience Friday afternoon was truly one of the first times I’ve felt the language of GEM come somewhat naturally. It is exciting to be aware of my own strengthening neural pathways, just as I remind my students to notice when a new challenge becomes easier with practice, patience, and time. Embracing the GEM lifestyle has not been an easy journey; in fact, it upended many of the teaching practices that made my days feel smooth and orderly. But I won’t turn back. I know without a doubt that I am better and my students are better because we are walking a path that empowers each of us as individuals to explore our unlimited potential.