For years, I told people, “I’m not a writer.”
My sophisticated junior high English teacher wrote biting comments on top of my essays, and frequently shared my best friend’s writing in front of the class while my own writing remained overturned on my desk hiding the deflating critiques. She was a writer, I concluded. Not me. This belief was reinforced when my mother, a frustrated journalist who never got to pursue her career, tried to rewrite my thoughts and descriptions. The logical conclusion: she was the writer, not me. To add to the negative thinking, I picked up a belief that girls didn’t have as many important things to say as boys did. (I never regarded this as truth as a teacher, thankfully.)
I had to face this limiting belief after I landed a teaching job at a community college. Teaching reading and speaking to non-native English speakers was a joy and something I’d done for years, but they asked me to teach college preparatory writing.
I wanted and needed this job. I panicked and got to work. I watched other teachers with their students, met with them, sat in on their classes. I hoped I could learn the skills “on the job.”
After a few semesters, I became a good writing teacher. Because of my own writing traumas, I had a lot of patience. Also, because of my confusion about what made good writing, I broke things down into their simplest form so that the structures of composition were clear for me and for the students. I did test them at times, but I gave them a lot of practice writing without the pressure of performance. I praised them for hard work and individual progress on pieces. I wanted them to learn what their strengths and weaknesses were and find their voice through practice.
I was working with a growth mindset, so my students could learn to write, and I could learn to teach. This term, coined by Ellen Langer, says that even the most basic abilities can be developed through perseverance and hard work.
The growth mindset shows us that our intelligence is not set in stone. “In a fixed mindset,” she writes, “people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” (link)
Because my students knew I created a safe environment to make mistakes and highlighted their own unique skill sets and hard work, they always improved when they practiced.
After teaching writing for 10 years, I reached another turning point. A desire to write stirred in me. Since I had loved drama and movies so much, I decided to try to write a screen play. For six months, I studied and wrote every day. By the end of the “bootcamp,” as they called it, I had a full-length screen play. The screenplay was not good, but I learned the discipline of writing every day, and I had taken a step forward in putting my writing out there for critique. I put the screenplay in a drawer but the desire to write didn’t disappear with it. Within six months, I signed up for another online writing course.
This time I wrote nonfiction and memoir. I found peers who were working on their memoirs or works of nonfiction and could critique my own writing without losing faith. Despite all my insecurities, I wrote every day, and after about three years of weekly critiques, I had my SFD (SFD is short for shitty first draft, according to Annie Lamott). I was ready to take it to the next stage, revision.
It was not my talent or childhood successes that kept me going. I’d had the opposite experience. It was grit, a growth mindset, and a deep desire to express something on the page that kept me going. It was a safe group setting both in my early years of teaching and later in my online peer review group which nurtured my ability to stick it out as first a teacher and then as a writer.
I’d learned “grit” and growth mindset, two qualities which educators and psychologists agree are necessary for success.
In an interview in Education World, Carol Dweck shares that the greatest gift we can give our students is to show them how to thrive on obstacles and to love learning. We do this not by praising their intelligence but by praising their effort. This helps develop grit. (link)
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who worked in public schools, found that grit was the most important quality to student success. She defines it as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long term goals.” (link) Grit was a combination of being able to finish a task and having a passion for that task. And this quality become more important than talent or IQ.
With a growth mindset and with some grit, we can accomplish our goals and help our students do the same. It starts with removing limiting beliefs and labels and nurturing an attitude that doesn’t fear failure, and praises perseverance.
I didn’t have grit in school when I was younger. But life sends you challenges. The challenges gave me grit and each success helped me to take another step.
I left those limiting beliefs behind.
#grit #growth mindset #writing #education #teaching