From “I can’t” to “I can’t YET”: Conversations with Education Leaders on Cultivating Growth Mindset

Elise Swinford
April 2019

Students at SJP Lower Mills work together to solve a math problem.

Growth mindset has been on Principal Lisa Warshafsky’s mind for the last few years, especially as her school, St. John Paul II Catholic Academy in Lower Mills, continues to train on equitable classroom instruction. Lisa has found that growth mindset—the concept that if you believe you can improve, you behave in a way that leads to improvement—has been part of SJP’s mission from the beginning, and when her staff began training on Universal Design for Learning, she made the connection. Growth mindset, she says, “is aligned with the mission and vision of a Catholic Education: educate the whole child, help them be the best they can be, and tap the child’s potential with love.” As they continue the challenging but important work of cultivating UDL practices in the classroom, growth mindset is as relevant for Lisa and her staff as it is for her students.

Lisa recently had the opportunity to consult with other education leaders from across the sectors on cultivating growth mindset and UDL practices at St. John Paul (Lower Mills) when she hosted a leadership consultancy organized by the Boston Compact. Universal Design for Learning, a framework to improve learning for all people based on individual abilities and needs, is an approach rooted in equity on all levels according to Chris Panarese, Assistant Director of Special Education at the Boston Public Schools:

“Equitable learning environments provide all students with the accessibility to a rich, standards-driven, engaging, and appropriately challenging learning. When teachers carefully and strategically choose UDL concepts (based upon their knowledge of their students’ needs) and embed them into lessons, they provide all students with equitable access to the learning.”

Wall mural at SJP Lower Mills.

This type of feedback was powerful for Lisa. While her campus has been working on differentiated instruction and providing lots of support to teachers through coaching and observation, some of her teachers had questions about how UDL could serve students who were already excelling. Having a conversation with education leaders clarified for everyone that UDL could work for both student who require additional supports as well as those whose learning should move beyond grade level proficiency.

This dialogue with thought partners from across the sectors helped Lisa think through how best to unpack common misconceptions about UDL with her staff. The consultancy format, she says, allowed her and other leaders to “take a risk with a problem of practice they are working through and receive targeted feedback.”

Lisa says she felt genuine support from her colleagues from other sectors as a result of the consultancy, and that she has been able to “identify realistic expectations” for her school’s first year of UDL training. Lisa is already doing many of the things that Chris Panarese notes as key to building a culture of growth, from preserving time to learn about data gathering to using data to monitor students’ journeys. School leaders can often feel as though they are working in silos in effecting change in their schools, but Lisa notes that the consultancy offered a “safe space,” allowing her to reflect on challenges and accomplishments while receiving targeted and supportive suggestions.

Are you a school administrator who would like to engage colleagues from other sectors in dialogue about a specific initiative or problem of practice? Email elise.swinford@bostoncompact.org to ask about organizing a Leadership Lab consultancy at your school.