The Benefit Mindset: A Sustainable Solution for Schools
WHAT’S THE ISSUE: How far can teachers having a Growth Mindset actually benefit them and their students? Is there a better way?
In this article I talk about:
- what’s the Benefit Mindset?
- how I (unknowingly) shifted from a Growth Mindset to a Benefit Mindset halfway through my teaching career.
- why I think an opt-in model for staff training works better than forcing all staff to attend.
I believe Ash Buchanan’s conceptualization of the Benefit Mindset offers fertile ground on which mindfulness-based Social and Emotional Learning initiatives in schools can flourish, long-term.
WHAT'S THE BENEFIT MINDSET?
Is this the first time you’re learning about the Benefit Mindset? Most of us who have been trained to work in British or International Schools are aware of the importance of students having a Growth Mindset for achieving academic progress and success. We’ve learned about the Growth Mindset through pre-service teacher training programs or through on-the-job continued professional development training provided by our school administration.
While there is obviously great value in cultivating a Growth Mindset (it’s certainly served me and my Growth Mindset students well), I think teachers need a more sustainable solution. I’ve found that the Growth Mindset is great for succeeding in achieving goals. But what’s missing is that long-term sustainability component that is needed in the teaching profession right now. Its focus on doing and on academic success as the ultimate goal can perpetuate an over-doing way of teaching that’s so focused on doing more (e.g. more activities, enrichment programs, extra support lessons for students during lunch breaks / after school / before exams, etc) that it comes at the expense of being more (e.g. more present, curious, calm, authentic, patient, focused). The Benefit Mindset challenges us to shift from doing more to being more. From succeeding to thriving. It’s more ambitious – and I like that.
The Benefit Mindset is a concept derived by a forward-thinking educator and researcher, Ash Buchanan. As you watch this short 2-minute video where Ash explains how it differs from the Fixed and Growth Mindset, you may become aware that you already bring a Benefit Mindset to your teaching practice…without realizing it! Ash Buchanan’s work develops the concept of a Benefit Mindset in a way that allows us to reflect more deeply on what this means for a school environment when teachers have a Fixed, Growth, or Benefit Mindset. The table on page 5 of his Schools Guide is a useful tool for stimulating meaningful conversations in schools about how we can sustainably improve well-being in teaching and learning. It’s also a great self-reflection tool for middle and high school students.
The Benefit Mindset challenges educators to move beyond teaching with an open mind (Growth Mindset) to teaching with an open heart (Benefit Mindset). It challenges us to shift from delivering a purely head-based education to delivering a holistic education that comes from the heart. Making schools a happier place involves more than just teaching kids critical thinking / academic skills and knowledge. It involves caring teachers who are open to offering their students opportunities to learn stress management tools that cultivate their emotional intelligence, concentration, and motivation to learn. For that to happen, teachers need to be open to cultivating their own emotional intelligence. Feeling their feelings (rather than just ‘thinking’ their feelings). When we increase our own emotional awareness and self-regulation for the benefit of all, our heart intelligence (and by extension, social intelligence) goes up.
By checking in on how we are showing up in our working day, rather than just mindlessly powering through our to-do list, we can have a greater positive impact on our classroom and school environment. We become more mindful, come off autopilot, and make wiser choices. We start to question whether our to-do list has to be so long for students to achieve good learning outcomes, or whether there’s a more efficient way of doing a good job.
The Benefit Mindset offers a win-win-win solution for teachers, students, and schools. It respects the well-being, concentration, and motivation challenges teachers and students face from the pandemic. How can teachers teach students the social-emotional learning and stress management skills students need to recover from the loss of socialization, concentration, and motivation from chronic stress…if they are also having a hard time managing their own emotions, concentration, and motivation?
SHIFTING FROM A GROWTH MINDSET TO A BENEFIT MINDSET
I had the good fortune of having a Growth Mindset in my teaching practice thanks to the Growth Mindset foundation laid by my international school environment growing up. Boosted by a Growth Mindset, I saw my past self as my competition. So since the beginning of my teaching career, I’ve been regularly reflecting on my teaching practice, what worked, what could be improved, and trying out new things and new approaches.
I found the concept of ‘competing’ with other departments or colleagues in my school unappealing. Just as I didn’t see the point of seeing my peers in class as ‘competition’ when I was studying for a test or exam in school. What grades they got was none of my business. We are all on our own journey. I was simply focused on improving myself, as a student and a professional, one step at a time. And I enjoyed a lot of success as a result, both as a student and as a teacher.
Year after year, I took good care of the ever-increasing numbers of externally assessed students I was assigned. My classes consistently ranked at the top of the charts in the excel spreadsheets shared by the international school where I used to work – irrespective of the subject I taught (IGCSE History, TOK, IB History). Every year, I successfully guided around 3 of my particularly ambitious Higher Level IB History students to develop the academic skills they needed to do well in exams and get into the world’s top universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, etc).
But when my work started coming at the expense of my health and well-being, I realized something had to change. I needed to stop doing more, and I needed to start being more. I’ve always been fascinated with what works, but for many years, the questions I was asking myself revolved around ‘What works for my students?’ It never occurred to me to add ‘And what works for me?’ into my inner dialogue! Then I started reading books like Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. And I realized that if I wasn’t okay, and I only focused on my students being okay, I was teaching them that it’s okay to sacrifice your health and well-being for your work. And how would that be contributing to helping to make the world a better place?
Luckily around 2015, I started developing a Benefit Mindset. I opt out of the self-sacrificing belief system I used to think was a virtuous way of being. As I changed my mindset, habits, and behavior, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my students benefited more when I stopped sacrificing my health and well-being for my work. My main fear had been that their academic learning outcomes would drop. But what I actually found is that not only didn’t that happen, they actually improved! The number of students I taught who became self-directed, curious learners increased dramatically. That’s how I knew I’d done the right thing in making my health and well-being a top priority after questioning why I felt I had to do so much in my daily work routine.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was shifting toward the open-hearted Benefit Mindset; I wasn’t aware that this concept even existed back then! But I was aware that my new win-win mindset toward teacher-student relationships was challenging my old limiting belief that I had to sacrifice my health and my personal life to be a good teacher who cares about their students. My students continued to achieve excellent results in my exam (IGCSE History and IB History) and coursework (Theory of Knowledge) classes. Overall, their self-regulation and time management skills in assignments, tests, and exams improved. So I had more energy left over to stop neglecting my Middle School students’ social-emotional and study skills learning needs. I was delighted to see how much my middle school students’ academic writing, speaking, study/time management/organization, and test-taking skills improved as a result!
TEACHER-DIRECTED SHIFTS TO THE BENEFIT MINDSET: WHY I BELIEVE IN AN OPT-IN MODEL OF TRAINING TEACHERS
For me, the Benefit Mindset was a self-directed process of transformation that occurred because I was ready for a change at that point in my working life. I was ready to broaden the question of “What works?” from simply caring about what works for my students to also asking myself what works for me. I was becoming increasingly aware of my human needs during the working day, and that my needs mattered too. (This was a message I wasn’t hearing in training events at the time, as teacher well-being was still widely considered a low priority in schools). The more I opened my heart to my own emotional and physical needs, becoming more self-compassionate, the more I was able to open my heart to more deeply and effectively respond to my students’ emotional and physical self-care education needs.
Since a Benefit Mindset requires shifting from teaching with an open mind to teaching with an open heart, I don’t believe this inner education process can be forced upon all teachers through a compulsory staff training event. You can’t develop a Benefit Mindset without being ready to develop your own emotional intelligence, your own heart intelligence. Developing your heart intelligence requires being ready to be more mindful – more present, more aware of how you and others are feeling. It requires being more mindful and aware of yourself and others. When we are ready to be more mindful, we are ready to come out of living life on autopilot. We are ready to engage in difficult conversations about why we do what we do, and how we can be a better version of ourselves.
Not all teachers are ready to engage in this deeper kind of training on their school’s one-off training day timeline. In an article I co-wrote with Andrew Mitchell (MYP Coordinator for BEPS International School of Brussels) for The International Educator called “Is Your Schools Mindfulness Initiative Working?” we raise the possibility of a new opt-in model for staff training. What worked for me in striving to become a more mindful Benefit Mindset teacher was the fact that I was ready to change. As teachers, we need to be shown respect for our life’s timeline. I believe an opt-in model for Benefit Mindset training can do that. It’s an opportunity for teachers to get support when they are actually ready to change.
There are many reasons why I think an opt-in model of training teachers makes more sense than forcing staff to attend a continued professional development training event. Particularly when we are talking about teacher training that supports student and teacher well-being/ positive mental health via mindfulness-based social and emotional learning. If I were to narrow these reasons down to the top 3 reasons, they would be: impact considerations, ethical considerations, and financial considerations. Let me walk you through each one.
REASON 1: IMPACT CONSIDERATIONS FOR AN OPT-IN MODEL OF TRAINING TEACHERS
Have you read Ash Buchanan’s brilliant resource, “Benefit Mindset: Schools Guide”? If not, you’ll find a preview below which you can click on to read the rest of it. The preview below is from the first three rows of Ash’s mindset comparison table on page 5 of his guide. As you read the descriptions for the Fixed Mindset, reflect on what that means in the context of forcing teachers who are loyal to the Fixed Mindset to attend Benefit Mindset training.
Notice how Ash appositely describes someone with a Fixed Mindset as someone who:
- “Shows up resistant to change and growth.”
- “Believes intelligence and ability can’t be developed.”
- “Focus(es) on maintaining what is familiar.”
Giving interested teachers a chance to opt-in prevents starting the training event off with a negative, resentful atmosphere caused by forcing people who don’t want to change to attend. Forced into training on stress management, positive mental health, or social-emotional learning for the benefit of all stakeholders, some teachers can end up just sitting there with arms crossed, projecting their negativity onto the trainer or into the group. They may show their resistance and displeasure at being forced to be there when they don’t want to be going on their phone to self-soothe by zoning out. They may make sarcastic jokes during the activities or refuse to engage in the training exercises. You may say that you put on an event and ‘ticked a box’ for an upcoming school inspection, providing staff with training. But the educational impact of your efforts would questionable.
An opt-in model also gives teachers back control and agency, after years of constant changes that were out of their control. “Between COVID, protocols, schools in-person and virtually, it feels like we are constantly switching and adjusting”, a conscientious primary school teacher recently said. By giving teachers the opportunity to opt-in to training and take ownership of a change (when and if they are ready to work on their mindset and well-being), you help them take back control.
REASON 2: ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR AN OPT-IN MODEL OF TRAINING TEACHERS
Is it right to force all teachers to work on cultivating a Benefit Mindset when that involves becoming more self-aware and emotionally aware? I think there are ethical issues we need to be open to talking about when it comes to this new type of heart-based mindset and social-emotional learning training.
Becoming more self-aware and emotionally aware in order to improve how we show up in our day can be painful. Coming out of autopilot means that we will start to feel some unpleasant emotions that we may have been suppressing and avoiding through escapism and dissociation habits (e.g. numbing unpleasant emotions with: a few too many glasses of wine before marking that big stack of tests, stress/emotional eating habits whenever chocolate/cookies/cake is available in the staff room (which is often, in some staff rooms!), mindlessly scrolling on social media, going shopping ‘therapy’ after work to get a temporary hit of pleasure from buying yet another pair of shoes that you don’t actually need). We start to be more honest with ourselves about our mistakes, assumptions, and contribution to a particular social or emotional challenge we are facing. We start to take full responsibility for our emotions and to work on improving our emotional hygiene. It’s not easy.
People have to be ready to come out of living on autopilot where they avoid feeling their emotions, if they are to take their emotional and social intelligence up to the next level. I believe in giving teachers control of when (and if) they want to take full responsibility for their emotional health. So if an opt-in training model isn’t possible, I think that we at least need to give people the chance to opt out, choosing to not attend training if they don’t want to. That way they aren’t forced into doing it to change when they aren’t ready to do so.
REASON 3: FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS fOR AN OPT-IN MODEL OF TRAINING TEACHERS
I think throwing money at a problem by investing in training that forces all teachers to participate is a waste of resources; sometimes the problem isn’t that a teacher isn’t aware, it’s that they don’t care. Consider these two statements that I’ve heard teachers in different IB schools say over the years:
- “I’ve built a beach house from the TOK Essays I’ve written for kids over the past 20 years. They pass my number on to their friends each year, and the new cohort just calls me and asks if I can write it for them. Each pays 2,000 Euros for me to write it for them.”
- “I only like teaching IB (Diploma) classes. The younger ones annoy me – they’re so needy. I’m only working for this school for the (IB Diploma) private tutoring.”
Some teachers are simply not interested in helping to improve the school environment by striving to become the best version of themselves for the benefit of all. In some cases, teachers may even be coming to work to do the bare minimum, get the security offered by the school for pension and other benefits, and use their employment in the school to build their tutoring or coursework-writing business.
What good can come out of forcing teachers who don’t genuinely care about their student’s well-being to participate in Benefit Mindset training?
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I think it’s wiser to redirect the money you would have wasted training teachers who are not interested in caring for student well-being and developing a Benefit Mindset to investing more in the teachers who care and are ready to change. Give the teachers who are open to a Benefit Mindset more opportunities via training throughout the year, rather than simply offering one-off training without follow-up and support. Step up support for them.
They are the ones who have the emotional capacity and readiness to lead by example. They are the ones who are willing to take full responsibility for their mental health and well-being for the good of all, as they practice and play with the pro-social skills and mindsets that they teach. They are the ones who can set in motion ripples of positive change in your school environment by first striving to embody the change they want to see in their students.
Invest more in the teachers who are ready to opt-in to training that benefits them and others.
About the author
Eleni Vardaki works online to support parent, teacher, and student well-being. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between mainstream education and the wellbeing skills we need to thrive. She believes in doable, sustainable interventions for student wellbeing in school and family cultures that value student and community wellbeing.
READ MORE ARTICLES BY ELENI ON MINDSET TRAINING
This is the second article in a 5-part mindset training series that I’ll be publishing this year.
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