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Leading by Example: Student Growth Begins with Teachers

“Maybe I’m just not good at math.” Hearing those words from Alice, one of my students, made my heart sink. Like all of my students, I knew that she had the potential to succeed. The challenge was finding a way to engage her and help her develop a growth mindset.

wilsonAlice told me once that she loved puzzles, so I created a mathematical puzzle that incorporated the math concepts she needed to learn. Alice jumped right in and solved the problem faster than some of my most math-savvy students!

Having a growth mindset is not just valuable for students like Alice. It’s also a crucial quality for teachers.  My own path to the classroom was not linear, and implementing a growth mindset proved to be invaluable.

Before I started teaching sixth grade eleven years ago, I was developing new medicines as a chemical engineer. While pursuing my Ph. D in engineering, I started creating and leading engineering activities for middle and high school students through the Women in Engineering Office. I realized that teaching requires many of the same problem solving and critical thinking skills as engineering, and I found that supporting students like Alice as they discovered their own mathematical ability was personally rewarding.

Making the transition to teaching was anything but easy. When I first started teaching, I was shocked at how few resources were available to teachers to help them grow. For students, the Michigan Academic Standards help them meet the high expectations that the 21st century workforce demands. In the great state of Michigan, manufacturing and engineering jobs require a great deal of academic preparedness—especially from new employees.

If we expect our children to be held to high standards, shouldn’t we do the same for our teachers?

Along the way, there were plenty of times when I felt burned out and ready to leave the teaching profession. I imagine I felt like Alice did on that first day of math class—helpless and hopeless in the face of a daunting task.

The good news is that if educators approach teaching in the same way we encourage our students to approach learning, the opportunities are endless. A couple years ago I attended a Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and it completely changed the way I think about my job. I connected with passionate teachers, learned about the great work happening in districts across the country, and shared my own experiences with eager-to-learn educators.

In 2014, I earned National Board Certification and I went on to join the leadership team of the Michigan National Board Certified Teacher Network. I still dedicate much of my own personal free time to raising awareness about the certification process and why it is so crucial for our teachers’ and students’ success.

In my classroom, there is no such thing as a stupid question. When I pose a math question, I write everyone’s thoughts on the board, and then help them identify the connections between the various solutions they’ve come up with. Every student has a different way of learning, and every student has the potential to be good at math. It’s up to us as teachers to lead by example and help them turn that potential into reality.

Gina Wilson is a lead teacher, department chairwoman and CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, a director of the MI National Board Certified Teacher Network, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves, and a TeachStrong Ambassador. Find Gina on Twitter @GinaWilsonNBCT.