Your Words Matter to Others’ Mindsets
By: Steve Gratz
Over the past few weeks at the Department, I've been overhearing the chatter of my colleagues getting their children ready for the return to school. Some of my co-workers are methodically getting their children up earlier and earlier in preparation for the first day of school. Many took full advantage of Ohio's sales tax holiday. And several shared how excited they were about finally getting back into a routine.
As a teacher, I relished the start of a new school year. Being a teacher of agriculture, I worked throughout the summer visiting students and discussing their supervised agricultural experience (SAE) projects with them and the upcoming school year with their parents. My goal was to visit every student three to four times per year. I have many fond memories eating dinner and visiting with students and their families. A couple of my favorite visits were to the Kain and Carpenter families — both were livestock farmers, and we always had great meals and conversations. On the first day of school, I already would have visited all the incoming freshman enrolled in my classes. The impact of home visits is amazing as you get to see the dynamics of each student’s family and a glimpse of what home life is like for the student.
Aside from reminiscing on my formative days in the classroom, I want to share how teachers’ words and actions impact students’ lives. One of my professors at The Ohio State University, Dr. Lowell Hedges, taught us a simple rule that I borrowed: Don’t prevent the teacher from teaching, and don’t prevent others from learning. A negative comment from a teacher can create a barrier to learning. Throughout my career, I have had countless students reminiscence about statements I made to them that were impactful in their lives. I’m sure many of my former students could share examples of when I was less than positive too. Too late in my career, I learned the lesson of how powerful the words of teachers are to students. The power of words matters not only to students and teachers — it is just as impactful to those you supervise, colleagues and family members.
Not to get too academic, but I want to share with you my frame of reference, so excuse me while I get a little nerdy. In her book, “Mindset,” Carol Dweck looks at the difference between people with fixed and growth mindsets, how one trumps the other and what you can do to adopt the right one. Dweck shows how success in school, and almost every endeavor, can be influenced dramatically by how we think about our talents and abilities. “Mindset” is a great read, and it uncovers how great parents, teachers and managers can put this idea to use to foster outstanding accomplishment.
To explain a little further, people with fixed mindsets believe talent is everything and your qualities are carved in stone. Characteristics such as intelligence, personality and creativity are fixed traits rather than things that can be developed. If they’re not gifted with the ability to do something, people with this mindset think they’re doomed to fail. Their skills seem to be written in their genes, just like their looks, which is why they never try to improve. Who you are is who you are, period. Conversely, people with growth mindsets believe your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Whatever they want to achieve is theirs for the taking, as long as they work hard for it, dedicate themselves to their goals and practice as much as they can. People differ greatly — in aptitude, talents, interests or temperaments — but everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Apart from our parents, teachers play major roles in how our mindsets turn out. A bad teacher might tell a D student that he’ll never amount to anything, whereas a good teacher would encourage him to study more and do better on the next test.
David Scott Yeager and Dweck (2012) showed that students who believed (or were taught) that intellectual abilities are qualities that can be developed (as opposed to qualities that are fixed) tend to show higher achievement. Yeager and Dweck also showed that believing (or being taught) that social attributes can be developed can lower adolescents’ aggression and stress in response to peer victimization or exclusion and result in enhanced school performance. They conclude by discussing how psychological interventions that change students’ mindsets are effective and what educators can do to foster these mindsets and create resilience in educational settings.
As the new school year begins, take the necessary time to use your words appropriately and make sure you are encouraging a growth mindset. The power of your words can have a positive impact on those who you associate with and encourage a growth mindset. Conversely, the wrong words, your tone and body language can strain relationships, cause stress, shut down communications and support a fixed mindset.
Take a moment to watch Dweck’s Ted Talk on the power of believing that you can improve and then share in the comments what you can do differently as you interact with students, parents and colleagues this school year.
Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.