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Gifted with Failure and Difficulty
by Andrea Spieglan
Lowrie Elementary School Elgin, Illinois
What attracted me to the Efficacy Institute three years ago was their “Mindset” philosophy. What I found interesting was the way a child thinks about his/her abilities and failures determines, in large part, his or her academic success. The description of “Mindset” rang true, and I fantasized about a classroom of students who were bent on learning everything that I had to teach.
I was teaching at Lowrie Elementary School in Elgin, IL when I was laid off among 731 colleagues due to the district’s financial crisis. However, I was offered a middle school position, which I accepted as a step toward returning to my elementary school. During the fall of 2010, I had been assigned to a tough classroom of 8th graders who were underperforming and as it seemed, were bent on learning nothing that I had to teach. I struggled with a lack of appropriate materials for adolescents who performed like second graders. Having taught elementary school for 10 years, I panicked at my inexperience with middle-schoolers.
I wanted to return to Lowrie because it represented the potential to realize a long-standing professional dream—being part of an urban school turnaround. I accepted the in-district middle school position with an open mind and a determination to spend every spare minute studying the turnaround process, so that when (and if) I transferred back to Lowrie Elementary, I would be able to contribute meaningfully to the endeavor.
My search for successful turnarounds led me to the Efficacy Institute’s website—it was unique. The Efficacy Institute, of course, recognized the importance of standards- and data-based decision-making as all successful turnaround programs do. But it had something else, too, something unexpected but so critical that I personally believe no school turnaround happens without it, knowingly or unknowingly: a clear way of speaking to struggling students about the reality of their situation and a way to make them understand how they, with their teachers’ help, can shape their own futures. Enter the Mindset.
Discussions about the Efficacy mindset began to make their way into my 8th grade Reading and English classes. The kids complained about the “baby stories” they had to read, and I countered by showing them their standardized test scores and explaining what percentile and grade-equivalent meant. If they wanted to do middle school work, their reading and writing skills would have to improve drastically. Together we made goals, we worked on their particular weaknesses, and talked a lot about how their effort and determination drove those test scores. By the December testing cycle, most of my students had met their yearly growth goal. The final Summary Report printed in June showed that these young people, who had second-grade scores to show for their eight years of schoolwork, had made 235.2% of expected growth. I left them with seeds of Efficacy in their minds. They understood that they could do amazing things, if they worked hard and didn’t give up.
In April of 2011, while I was experimenting with Efficacy in the middle school, a position opened up at my old building and I would be allowed to transfer back “home” in August. I knew that Efficacy had to be a part of my teaching, so I ordered materials and spent four months planning its implementation in my new 4th and 5th grade classroom. But the prior turnaround at Lowrie had withered under the enormity of budget cuts and staff changes. When I returned, I heard words like “unrealistic” and “five to seven years for results.” Reverberating in my head, though, were phrases like, “failure and difficulty are feedback,” “don’t give up,” and “Efficacy is the power to do anything you decide to do.”
I brought Efficacy into my classroom, this time more purposefully. The children and their parents were told about “the Mission” which was proficiency for all of my students. I introduced “the Mindset” and sent consistent reminders about the link between effort and achievement. The children maintained their own data folders to track their strengths, weaknesses, and their progress toward proficiency. They began to encourage one another, starting with little Ana in October when she turned to a distracted tablemate and demanded that he “choose his Strong Side!”
These 4th and 5th graders understood that their abilities were under their own control. They had internalized Efficacy, and that year the Growth Summary Report showed 202% of expected progress. What a privilege it was to sit in my class that June and feel as proud as those young people looked.
As I sat down to write this article, I was concerned that my Efficacy story was fraught with difficulty and disappointment. Indeed, it is. The Efficacy Mindset that caught my attention three years ago teaches that it is not the presence or absence of failure and difficulty that determines who we are, but rather how we respond to them. I believe this is true for teachers and administrators as well as students, and, so, I am grateful for the troubles in my story, for the middle-school assignment, for those oppositional 8th graders, and for being challenged to keep teaching Efficacy in defiance of a failed turnaround. I’ve been able to, and hope that I will continue to, turn each failure and difficult circumstance into an opportunity to become a more proficient educator. I hope that my students’ success will inspire others, individuals as well as whole Efficacy faculties, to do the same.
I’d like to dedicate this article to my colleague and friend, Audrey Compere. Yes, Audrey, it was a “strangely wrapped gift.”
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