When I was 11 years old, my teacher asked the class to report back on news events from the last week. My hand was up straight away. I was desperately keen for affirmation as a young student and it was pretty much status quo for my hand to be raised. From the front row I reported to the class that in the news thar Blyth Tait had been chosen as one of the NZ Olympics flag bearers.
“One of the flag bearers?” My teacher replied with a tone that really did not hide their disapproval.
As a twelve year old my experiences hadn’t quite taught me that in an Olympics opening ceremony didn’t require a person at each corner of the flag. There was indeed only one flag bearer.
My teacher then paused for an intake of disappointed breath, leant in towards me but didn’t lower their voice; they said “Jerome, you need to open your ears…and listen”. They gestured with both hands towards their ears like one might when teaching pre-schoolers parts of the body. They explained what I had got wrong to the class and moved onto the next news event.
While there is a funny side to this very minor event, I can remember that 30 seconds in vivid detail almost 25 years later. It’s a memory I’ve replayed countless times in my head.
This memory, along with many others, has played in my head while listening to ‘Dead Eyes‘ a “personal nonfiction investigation series” by Connor Ratcliff. The 31 part podcast is “a quest to solve a very stupid mystery that has haunted him for two decades: why Tom Hanks fired him from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series, Band Of Brothers”. Hanks reportedly said Ratcliff had ‘dead eyes’ and he had to re-audition before being fired for a role that ultimately amounted to a couple of lines.
Like Tom Hanks, teachers hold a lot of power with our words. What we choose to say can resonate in a young person’s life for good or for bad. But with great power comes great responsibility and what ‘Dead Eyes’ has helped me reflect on is our role in helping students to navigate failure and disappointment, so that those moments of disappointment and failure don’t have as much power to cause harm.
‘Dead Eyes’ is an excellent reminder of the growth mindset. Carol Dweck has written extensively about this idea that someone with a growth mindset views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort. On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time. What we attribute failure to goes a long way to determining how successful we might be on the next task we attempt.
Do ‘dead eye’ moments happen to people with a growth mindset? I’d argue they certainly do – but a growth mindset can help us to navigate these in positive and productive ways.
Further to Dweck, Doug Lemov’s work on creating a culture of error in Teach Like a Champion is worth considering. His argument is that there is immense value in the learning that comes from error – if teachers make it feel safe to be wrong. A culture of error is an environment where it is normal for students to fail and to learn from it.
The following are phrases which I am still working at unlearning – I still hear myself saying them at times – because I heard them often when I was a student – because I was listening so well with my open ears.
“Team, I should not be seeing people with this error. You should know this by now”
“We’ve already covered this last week, so I should see lots of hands up”
“Come on now this is the end of the unit, not the start”
They all have the potential for dead eye moments, engraining a fixed mindset and making it harder for students to learn from their mistakes. Instead Lemov suggests phrases like these:
“I’m really glad you’ve made that mistake; it is going to help me help you”
“This is a tough question. If you are struggling with it, that’s a good sign”
“Wrong answers are really helpful because we learn from the mistakes we make”
“I love that this is a hard question and that there are so many hands in the air”
If students hear disappointment in mistakes they are likely to keep them concealed. The language educators us can an enormous difference.
It is important to learn that things don’t always turn out the way you want them to, and that is annoying but you have to find the best way of dealing with it. ‘Dead Eyes’ has helped me to reflect on the relationship between education and failure, and promoted some really interesting conversations with colleagues – including many other ‘dead eyes’ stories.
There are two broad ideas I want to keep hold of:
- One is to reflect on the language I use in the classroom particularly when students are vulnerable, in order to encourage a growth mindset and a culture of error.
- Secondly, the story of Dead Eyes is not just about when things don’t turn out the way you want them to, it’s also about navigating failure. Ultimately we can’t protect young people from feelings of disappointment and failure but we can help equip students to navigate it when it arises. This needs its own blogpost sometime.
Ultimately, how can we make the students we teach less like Year 8 Jerome who learnt to stop putting up his hand in class discussions and more like Samuel Beckett.
Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson: Great Britain.
Lemov, D (2015) Teach Like A Champion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ratcliff, Connor (Host). (2020–present). Dead Eyes [Audio podcast]. Headgum.