Lessons From My Tea: Experience

Disclaimer: A wood chipping truck is chopping up a tree at 5:45am this fine Monday morning, so I am up early. This post may be full of incoherent babbling as I drink my morning tea. Thanks, tree trimmer people.

I have spoke before about my wise tea. No, I don’t mean I read tea leaves, I mean I read the cute little sayings on the tea bag string. Good clarification. Today’s tea told me:

Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best

Amen, Red Rooibus African Tea.

As some of you know from my Facey Face page or Twitter, I did a presentation this past weekend for a group of teachers on strategies for working with students with learning or attention disabilities. The teacher group was near Santa Barbara, so I flew from the Bay Area down to LA and drove.* When I arrived in LA, it was like 8 at night, so I cruised on over to the school in like an hour an a half. Easy breezy!

On my return trip, I got up at 7am (seems like sleeping in after this morning’s debacle) and I drove back from Santa Barbara to LA. I allotted myself 2 hours to get to the airport. I mean, just add a half hour to account for morning traffic, right? And I die. It took me over 3 hours to get through LA traffic to the airport and I nearly missed my flight and had to pay for an extra DAY on the rental car to the tune of $118. Gak! So, it turns out that between 7-10 am in LA, you can only go a mile an hour and the rental car people are evil and rigid. Lesson learned. Now I have that experience to file away. Not a kind experience, but a powerful one.

So what experiences do our students have that are painful, but great experiences? As my tea mentioned before, we learn from our mistakes. I was in a classroom a few weeks ago where a teacher had a darling drawing of herself making a mistake and then whenever she made a mistake in the class, she would make a tally mark and point it out as a learning opportunity. I. Love. It.

I am always telling teachers and parents to model making mistakes and their thought processes as they fix their mistakes. It is such a great lesson for our kids that it is okay to make mistakes. Unfortunately, in some school climates, mistakes are not welcome to the ego. I have seen 8 year olds crumble up their artwork because its not perfect, or get so upset that their pencil doesn’t have an eraser because it shows that they made a mistake.

So in addition to modeling making mistakes and being explicit that mistakes are how we learn, what else can we do to help perfectionistic kids? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Ahem. My name is Rebecca, and I am a recovering perfectionist.**

Invisible Crowd in My Mind: Hi, Rebecca.

First, let me share a tale. It’s a tale of a young girl who was a first year school psychologist. In her first year, she royally messed up about every 10 minutes. Now, coming from a super high achieving academic background (I’m gonna get my Ph.D. by age 27 at UC Berkeley!), this was one of those times in which she could have used some tea advice about how mistakes are how we learn. But it is really hard to make mistakes that may impact student’s lives, or cost the district $100,000 (oops!), or make you look like a dumba$% in parent meetings with advocates and lawyers pointing out your faults, or my favorite, (detailed in The Teachable Moment introduction), trying to conduct a whole group lesson for 6th graders on what constitutes “lewd and lascivious conduct.”

**Shudder.** Experience hurts.

The best book I read about counteracting perfectionism and being okay with your own mistakes was written by Carol Dweck, called Mind Set: The New Psychology of Success. I wish I had read it in 2001, but it wasn’t out yet. I actually wouldn’t recommend purchasing it now, because it gets to be redundant, but the point stuck. I’ll save you $24.95 ( or $32.00 if you are in Canada):

Having a growth mindset is one of the best ways to be successful and shed perfectionism.

A “growth mindset” is knowing that talents can be developed and that great abilities are built over time. It allows room for, if not emphasizes, that mistakes are inherent in learning. Perfectionists tend to not have this mindset naturally—they think that success should show up on its own, before any learning takes place. It’s about immediate, and effortless perfection. Perfectionists tend to have a “fixed mindset” in which you believe your talents and abilities are set in stone—either you have them, or you don’t. In that case, you have to prove to yourself over and over again, and are constantly trying to look smart and talented without effort or mistakes. She did one study where she primed the kids for a growth mindset (before a math test, they studied mathematicians who didn’t have natural talent, but became great) or a fixed mindset (before the math test, studied mathematicians who were “naturally” talented). The kids primed for a growth mindset did better, even though they had the same skills as the fixed mindset kids.

The good news is that Dweck demonstrates that mindset is learned and can be modified with effort. Practical applications for parents and teachers include:

1) Have a growth mindset about the student’s abilities, and share stories of people who worked hard to become experts at a task or talent. Share your own stories of how you improved with practice. See: How I learned to be a better hip hop dancer through specific feedback about stankyness.

2) Praise effort, not ability. Instead of “You are so smart in math!” (Implication: you have to demonstrate you are so smart in math that you don’t make mistakes), say “Look how hard you are working on those math problems!” (Implication: effort pays off, and you can grow your math skills)

3) Focus on the student’s personal best, rather than the being the best in the class. Also, don’t let kids compare themselves to someone who has been doing a task for a long time. Kids sometimes say things like, “You’re a better artist, you draw it.” That inappropriate yardstick will set up a perfectionist to feel like a failure at age 8. My response? “I have been practicing how to draw for a long time. It’s your turn to practice!”

Okay, peeps, my alarm just went off telling me it is time to get up, and my tea is not cutting it for me this early morning. Experience should have told me that coffee is the only way. Please excuse me. Enjoy your week!

*I never present in ugly cities. Or attend conferences in cold places. Spoiled? Yes.
**Sound familiar? You may like the post, My Name is Rebecca and I am a Recovering Procrastinator. Also related, Procrastination is spelled wrong in the labels on the side and it bugs me but I can’t fix it. Mistakes are okay….mistakes are okay….

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Comments on Lessons From My Tea: Experience

  1. sarah says:

    How fitting that this post popped up in my reader when I already had this post on perfectionism open to bookmark & absorb: http://www.ordinarycourage.com/my-blog/2010/9/26/the-perfect-protest.html

    One quote: Perfectionism, on the other hand, is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.

    I love that the theme emerging for today is imperfection & learning.

  2. I have been on an audiobook kick.
    My new favorite resource worth checking out.
    My local library has audiobooks download-able for free.
    There are not a lot of psychology- or education-oriented titles yet, but I have been loving the business/leadership/organizational stuff. Great ideas on productivity.
    Check to see if you local library has a similar resource.
    I am also going to check out the Library of Congress Site too.
    http://askdreric-schoolpsychologist.blogspot.com/

  3. I really like the idea of a picture of me hung up in my classroom, with a place for tally marks (for my mistakes).

    You are so right! Kids need to have an adult model making a mistake and fixing it, and not getting all bent out of shape about it.

    (Aah, Berkeley…One of the coolest cities around. You ARE spoiled, living in the Bay area…)

  4. Marie says:

    I like to tell my Grade 3 students that being a perfectionist is negative. Two kids get 90% on a test. The perfectionist is frustrated about the 10% that was wrong. The high achiever celebrates the 90% that was right. I love your suggestion about emphasizing the mistakes we make as adults. I sometimes get the kids to reflect when they make a mistake and remind themselves that the mistakes help them to be better learners.
    Marie

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am currently a school psychologist intern, and I fear mistakes! This makes me feel a little better 🙂

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