Inspire Lifelong Learners: Modeling the Novice Mindset

By Sierra Downs

The First Year

“Genghis Khan was a pretty good guy, actually.” 

This concluding remark to a student essay written during my first year of teaching has haunted me for years. 

I had just begun teaching history at the middle school level and had high expectations for my classroom–I wanted to encourage my students to ask big questions, consider lofty ideas, and allow the subject to shape the way that they saw themselves and the world around them. 

One of the reasons I love history most is that the subject is the perfect ground for considering human worth and virtue ethics. In a modern society characterized by political polarization and “cancel culture”, the thoughtful study of historical figures can allow us to practice what it looks like to hold others accountable to their actions while still being people of empathy who seek to love and understand even our enemies. 

And so, with the fervor and energy of a first-year teacher, I had reworked my curriculum in an attempt to humanize and understand the motivations of one of history’s most notorious villains: Genghis Khan. I tried new instructional strategies, trusting my students with more intellectual freedom and hoping desperately that I wasn’t messing it all up. 

And then I read this student’s final essay. 

A “pretty good guy, actually”? What kind of a history teacher was I, producing a student whose hero of history was a pillaging, power-hungry warmonger? What had I done wrong?

The Second Year

As I moved into the next school year, this line remained embedded in my mind. Because of moments like this–where I felt as though I had tried and miserably failed–I became afraid to try again. Coupled with that fear was the seemingly ever-present undercurrent of the profession: I was tired. It takes time and energy to pursue improvement, both commodities that often feel quite scarce in the life of the modern educator. In light of this fear of failure and wearied apathy, I found myself leaning away from the challenge of trying new things in my classroom or calling my students to higher thinking. It became tempting to slip into instructional habits that were familiar, to rely on plug-and-play lessons, and to let this fearful apathy win the day. 

But while this seemed the easier and more appealing route, I felt that both myself and my students suffered. I resented my job more than usual, and I could tell that my students were not enthused about my course. 

This was not the kind of teacher that I wanted to be. 

The Novice Mindset

In Dr. Jon Eckert’s book, The Novice Advantage, he describes a similarly memorable moment of “failure” in his teaching career involving a school bus, a student with motion sickness, and the reliable laws of physics. The result? A rather memorable mess that has clearly stuck with Dr. Eckert as he has continued in his profession. However, he tells that story with the intention of reminding his readers that they will all have moments of “failure” in their quest for improvement as teachers, and as people. In spite of these moments, however, he urges that they maintain a novice mindset, or “the belief that we grow continuously through fearless, deliberate practice” (Eckert, xvi).

This thing–the novice mindset–was exactly what my worried and wearied soul was missing during my second year of teaching. 

Invited Into Growth

I have the unique experience of working at the school that I attended, which means that many of my current coworkers are also my former high school teachers. When I was a student, a group of these very teachers had modeled this bold and intentional novice mindset in such a way that I cannot help but look back and think, “perhaps that is why I love to learn.” 

Early in my high school years, a few determined instructors decided to try launching a new pedagogical initiative in our school: academic dialogue. They designed the practice with our school’s educational philosophy in mind and crafted language around what it looked like to speak about difficult topics with empathy, integrity, humility, and truth. Then, they began to invite their students to try it with them. 

To be honest, I have forgotten the content of most of the dialogues that I engaged in throughout my time as a student, and I would not shy away from telling my teachers-turned-coworkers that fact. Because what I do remember–and what inspired me to love learning the way that I do today–was what it felt like to be a part of the purposeful educational venture of those determined teachers. 

They were willing to fail because they believed in the worth of what could happen if they didn’t. I remember the nervous uncertainty in the silence of the first few dialogues that myself and my classmates engaged in–none of us knew what we were doing, and some of those conversations turned into 15 minutes of unbearably uncomfortable silence. But my teachers did not allow those failed attempts to end the venture altogether. Instead, they helped us to see that the dialogues that had turned into a heated argument or garnered no real engagement from any of the students were not, in fact, failures, but opportunities for growth. They invited us into the process of improvement in a way that made us want to be more curious, sincere, intentional, and brave. 

And it may come as no surprise that it was these teachers who ultimately encouraged me not to fall prey to the snares of apathy and fear during my second year of teaching. Through thoughtful conversations in the staff lounge, willingness to collaborate on lesson plans and assignments, and even the commitment to sit in on one another’s classes, these teachers helped to quell my fear of failure and reinvigorate my desire to see real learning happen in my classroom. 

Both as teachers and coworkers, they have always encouraged me to resist the fear of failure and embrace a novice mindset by inviting me into their quest to vulnerably, boldly, and deliberately improve. 

Modeling the Mindset

Learning and growing is hard. Why else would our students often slog into our classrooms asking things like, “Do we actually have to work today?” or “Can we go outside?” 

Calling others to the task of improvement, of growth, of real learning, is lofty and difficult. Failure is highly probable. 

But isn’t this ultimately why we teach? 

May we remember that the seemingly easier route–the one in which we shy away from trying new things and pursuing improvement–is actually what can strip our souls of life, creating in us a spirit of resentment, apathy, and dissatisfaction. 

Let us be teachers who embody the gritty optimism of a novice, because the process of learning is life-giving in a way that fear and apathy never will be. 

And maybe–just maybe–our students will see that, remember it, and be changed by it. 

Sierra Downs serves as the Director of Student Guidance at Front Range Christian School in Littleton, Colorado, and is a current student in Baylor’s Master of Arts in School Leadership program. She spent her first few years in education as a history teacher at both the middle and high school levels. Through her new role in administration, she enjoys pursuing best practices in collective leadership, professional development for educators, and school improvement.

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