Modeling a Learner’s Mindset

By Jaclyn Zarrella, Instructional Coach & History Teacher

As teachers engage in their own learning and evolution, they replicate the same experience for their students' development in the classroom.

Recently, I was looking through an old Google Drive folder for a resource I had used in a past class. Out of curiosity, I opened a lesson from 2014 and audibly gasped at what I saw. I had to stop myself from entering a space of self-judgment. This lesson was an artifact of my practice at that moment in time. I had to remind myself that I had not been exposed to visible learning strategies or collaborative learning practices yet. The lesson plan that I built for today’s (January 2022) class is destined to be an artifact representative of this moment in time. I’m sure that if I had opened a lesson plan from the beginning of my teaching career in 2007—which I can’t because I wrote my lessons on paper back then—I would wish I knew then what I know now. I can only imagine what I will think in 2032 when I open my work from today.

It is clear that my practice grows stronger every year as I hone my practice. A catalyst to that growth is pursuing professional development that pushes me to question my current practices and open myself to an iterative process with my curriculum and pedagogy. Professional development takes the form of attending conferences, engaging in workshops at school, collaborating with colleagues, receiving coaching from mentors and experts, and regular reflective practice as an individual. 

These experiences and practices translate directly into the classroom through more robust lessons and advanced assessment practices. However, the most significant impact has been applying the professional learning process to the student learning process. As teachers engage in their own learning and evolution, they replicate the same experience for their students' development in the classroom. Here are ways that professional development and teacher coaching directly impact our students’ classroom experience. 

#1: Promotes research-based solutions to authentic dilemmas

You may hear educators, including myself, say the line: “21st-century teaching should not look exactly like 20th-century teaching.” Our teaching should evolve to match the changes in the world and best practices in education. This concept is evident in the recent and urgent need to adapt to new structures and challenges with the onset of the pandemic. By attending webinars through NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) and keeping up with blogs and podcasts, like Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales, educators could address student engagement dilemmas. They also pushed their practice through innovative approaches to impact their practices when we returned to the classroom. I observed studio teachers who created robust Google websites for an online learning environment continue this practice, which led to interactive spaces for critique and wider viewership of student learning. The transparent lesson planning practices rooted in our faculty summer reading of Understanding By Design, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, provided a framework that clarified our cycle plans and regular unit updates to families. These communications brought clarity for students and parents regarding classroom work. While necessity may be the mother of invention, all children require nurturing to reach their full potential. Resources and professional development provide our educators with the support they need to make their design solutions thrive in the classroom.

#2: Models a “learner’s mindset” 

Our main objective as educators is to foster growth and development in our students. In my teaching career, I have routinely encountered students who were frustrated that they didn’t get something perfect the first time they tried. An important skill to demonstrate in the classroom is what it looks like to have your work evolve over time. It can be challenging for teachers to embrace this technique because there is an assumption that the teacher needs to be the undeniable expert in the room. While we are confident in our content knowledge and have the experience to draw upon when making decisions about our instructional practices, it is also true that we can continuously improve. Showing this level of humility with the students and modeling the thinking behind our decision-making helps the students develop this same learner’s mindset. Ron Ritchhart, from Harvard’s Project Zero, provides research that we have integrated into workshops at Field to use thinking routines, documentation, and effective questioning and listening techniques to enhance learning and collaboration in any learning environment. 

Additionally, our faculty training from PBLWorks (Project Based Learning) in August provided models to demonstrate the design process to students throughout a project and give space to notice the evolution of their learning. I recently observed that the structure of my skillsbook was not providing students with the best clarity about their progress in the class. I conducted listening sessions with the students, drafted a new skillsbook, and held a consultation session to determine if my work had improved to meet their need for clarity. By engaging the students in my revision process, I demonstrated that one’s work is always up for improvement, especially when not meeting the needs of the audience. I immediately observed a change in how the students addressed their work, which moved from identifying it as “good” or “bad” to articulating how it “was” or “was not” meeting the objective.

#3: As coaches support, teachers become coaches

While exposure to frameworks, training, and resources is a part of professional development, our learning cannot be contained to specific days set aside for PD. The bulk of this understanding comes in the messy process of implementation and iteration. This is why instructional coaching is key to developing our pedagogical skills. 

“Coaching can build the will, skill, knowledge, and capacity [of an educator] because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into [their] intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings.”~Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching

Our students need strong relationships with their teachers to be seen and heard during their learning process, and so do our educators. Coaches can foster conditions that elicit deep reflective practice where learning can truly take place. It is a space where teachers build risk-taking capacity, celebrate success, and process frustration. Over the summer, our department chairs attended a conference where they practiced these facilitative coaching skills to enhance our faculty’s experience and growth. In several conversations with these department chairs, they have noticed that their skills in delivering feedback and observing patterns of progress have positively impacted the teachers they are coaching, and teachers are replicating these strategies with their students. Students engage in more reflective practice in their classes to better understand how they learn—not just what they learned. 

There is a distinct reason why teachers never wanted to leave the school environment—we love learning. Our content may remain the same, yet our strategies of reaching new groups of students are undoubtedly different. To continually meet our goals for student learning, we devote ourselves to ongoing stewardship of our skills to create the best learning environment for Field students. Through a supportive environment of risk-taking, bolstered by research in best practices, we show our students what Dare to Be Wise means daily.