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To Help Students Succeed, Fulmore Middle School Teachers Change How They Talk

Students in Victoria Twining's class at Fulmore Middle School in Austin.
Martin do Nascimento

Fulmore Middle School Principal Lisa Bush doesn’t want her teachers talking like this to students: "Oh, you’re doing a great job! You’re smart! You’re so great!"

It's not because she’s some evil headmistress. Over the last three years, Bush and her teachers have been thinking about different psychological practices. It made her realize that how teachers speak to students makes a huge difference.

If a student gets an A on a test and the teacher praises her for being smart, that's not necessarily a good thing.

"All of a sudden the kid starts thinking ‘I need to be smart. I need to do a great job. I need to be perfect all the time. I don’t want to let my parents down,'" Bush said. "And then all of a sudden, you have a kid that has ulcers and stress and stomach problems."

Once the student gets a bad grade or struggles with an assignment, Bush said, she shuts down because she doesn't think she's smart. It’s something students might not even realize is happening.

So a handful of Fulmore teachers changed the language they use in the classroom a couple years ago, but now the approach has been rolled out to the entire school.

Veronica Twining, a seventh-grade teacher at Fulmore Middle School.
Credit Martin do Nasciemento / KUT
Veronica Twining, who teaches seventh grade at Fulmore Middle School, says it has been difficult to change the language she uses in the classroom to focus on effort as opposed to outcome.

Focusing On Effort, Not Outcome

Seventh-grade math teacher Veronica Twining says it has been challenging to stop herself from talking this way.

“A couple years ago, I would have thought like – 'Oh, I'm telling the kids how wonderful they are; surely they’re being encouraged, I’m motivating them,'" Twining said. "But [I wasn't] aware that how I deliver feedback … it’s more of like praising their efforts, not so much the outcome at the end.”

In the middle of a lesson on fractions, Twining asked her students to write down the answer to a problem. Many of the students go it wrong, but this is how she addressed it:  

"You’re still applying those math skills," she told the class. "I like the way you all remembered what you’re studying from the weeks past.”

It's OK To Not Be Perfect

The teachers at Fulmore are trying to focus on growth rather than perfection, which can help change negative thinking.

Principal Bush said stopping students from talking down to themselves is one of the big challenges in the classroom.  

“'I can’t do this; I can’t do this.' That’s a really hard obstacle to overcome with kids,” she said.

Bush said if a student thinks he can’t do something, he won’t try.

Over the last few years, Fulmore teachers started working with students to develop what they call a "growth mindset." How can a student approach every class or every assignment with focus and not necessarily to get the best grade?

Lucy Figuero, an eighth-grade teacher at Filmore Middle School in Austin.
Credit Martin do Nasciemento / KUT
History teacher Lucy Figuero says the vibe in the classroom has changed since she changed her approach to a "growth mindset."

Lucy Figueroa, who teaches eighth grade U.S. history, said she often sees her students give up if they are stuck on an assignment. Now, she addresses that feeling head on. At the beginning of a recent class, she gave students instructions on a project. Then, she spent a few minutes talking through ways to push through the project if they got stuck.

“What if you’re starting to have a little bit of frustration, you’re starting to get upset about your project?" she said. "What is something that we can do?”

One student suggested asking a classmate for guidance. Another suggested taking a break. 

“I like that," Figueroa said. "Take a break, breathe, count to 10."

The school says these tactics are working. Figueroa said attendance is up and that the vibe in her classroom is different.

"They’re more positive, they’re communicating more in the classroom," she said. "They’re coming up and asking me about their grades. … That's things that I haven’t seen in previous years."

Eighth-grader Nathaniel, who started at Fulmore this year, said that because of his ADHD, English is tough. He has trouble focusing on one assignment at a time, which has led to poor grades and his feeling unmotivated. But he said his teachers at Fulmore helped him change his mindset.

Nathaniel said his previous school "didn't really care," so he didn't either.

"So when I got a bad grade or if I had homework I would hide it," he said, "but now I actually do my work.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Principal Lisa Bush as Lucy and teacher Veronica Twining as Victoria. The broadcast version of the story also had the names wrong.   

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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