Beginner’s mind in teaching

I’m not a beginner at math. I’ve used it for decades (yikes!) for a wide range of things, from modeling flow in the earth’s mantle, to calculating drilling-mud weights in an oil well, to building the roof for a bay window, to calculating how big a load of goat manure my truck’s suspension can handle. I have known and forgotten more math than most of my students will ever see in their lifetimes.

I am, however, a beginner at teaching. I have very little formal training in pedagogy and child development. My file of teaching tricks is still very slim.  I don’t know most of the jargon that gives entry into the teacher clubhouse, and I make newbie mistakes in the classroom every day.  I am constantly amazed when a group of students will blindly follow my directions—as if I were an expert or something—and I live in fear of the moments of student revolt that inevitably happen, when a planned lesson goes all pear-shaped in the blink of an eye.

I am also a beginner at meditation.  I am a haphazard student of Zen Buddhist philosophy, mainly because my neighbor is a Buddhist priest. (She also danced to the Rolling Stones in a miniskirt and stiletto boots at her 50th birthday party this year, so she’s probably not what you were picturing.) In the best Zen tradition, I take what is useful to me from the practice, and what has most transformed me so far is the idea of beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism, also known as “don’t-know mind.” It isn’t the same as ignorance. It’s an idealized state of being without preconceptions, open to what is really happening, and eager to learn and understand. A teacher with beginner’s mind doesn’t assume she knows the answers to questions.  She doesn’t assume that she knows the causes of student errors, even when they appear to be the same errors students have made in previous years. The teacher with beginner’s mind constantly asks, “What is really happening here?”

I’m kind of cheating, but not really. In a way, it’s easy to achieve beginner’s mind when you are new to something. As a new teacher, literally not knowing what I’m doing, I’m more likely to question my own methods and assumptions, and to listen to advice from more experienced teachers. But this constant questioning can be exhausting, particularly if I let myself feel that I should know, that I ought to be better at this by now.   True inexperience can actually be an impediment to achieving beginner’s mind.  Fear, defensiveness, pretending confidence—these are all reactions I’ve had to my lack of experience, both in the classroom and in meetings with my colleagues. These reactions are enemies of the “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” that I want to maintain.*  They also tempt me to fall back on the areas where I have confidence: applied math and science research.  They tempt me be to be an insufferable know-it-all in those areas in fact.

Instead, I try to embrace what I don’t know, and learn about it. I try to notice, not assume. I try to think not “This is an angry student,” but “This student has acted angry in class every day so far.” Not “This student can’t learn this stuff,” but “This student doesn’t understand what I just said.” Not, “This student is lazy,” but “This student doesn’t appear to be making any effort.” or even better, “This student is sitting without picking up his pencil, and he’s not watching what I am writing on the board.”

There’s a balance to strike, though.  As teachers, we have to plan, try to anticipate the errors that students can make, so that we can have resources at hand to help them recognize and correct their misunderstandings. We have to predict what students will find interesting, or funny, or boring, and we have to plan how long activities may take.  However, being willing to be wrong can lead to a better lesson. When I explicitly try not to assume the causes behind what I see happening, I’m more likely to find a way to solve the problem at hand.  The intentional cultivation of beginner’s mind also pays other, unexpected dividends in my life: better personal and professional relationships, better parenting, and renewed delight in simple mathematics that I thought I thoroughly understood.

For as long as I can call myself a beginner, I will try to use my lack of experience as an asset.  As I get better at this teaching thing, I hope I will also get better at the practice of beginner’s mind, so I can continue to see each student, each problem, each colleague with fresh eyes.  So please help me here, in the comments.  How do you keep things fresh for yourself and your students?  What benefits have you seen?


*I lifted those words directly from the Wikipedia page on Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind.  The full sentence is as follows: “It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.” I smiled when I read it.


Old, overeducated and new to teaching

I have taken a far-from-traditional path to teaching high-school math. I’m 47 years old, but I have had only two proper “jobs” in my life (not counting campus jobs when I was in college): editorial assistant, and assistant professor of earth sciences. Together, those jobs accounted for only three years of my life. For the past 15 years, I’ve been a freelance science writer and editor for academic geophysicists while also being a wife, mom, and home-improvement specialist.  I have a PhD in geophysics from Stanford.

Now I’m a second-year high-school math teacher.  At parties, when non-teachers find out what I do, they generally throw out a few polite questions. A common one is “How long have you been teaching?” When they find out I’m a gray-haired newbie with a PhD, the conversation generally gets more animated, and it follows one of two scripts:

1) You must be some kind of (saint/masochist/loony) to take that job!

2) Ah, you (couldn’t get/didn’t want/are living in the wrong place for) a real job in your field, right?

So I have thought a lot about why I made this leap. Of course, I thought a lot about it before I did it, but as we teachers know, trying to explain something to others is the best way to expose the gaps in your own understanding.  This is true when I teach math, and it’s also true when I think about my life choices.  In the last two years, I’ve come to understand more fully what I love about teaching, and why it took me this long to figure it out.

My mother was a high-school math teacher (I know, right?), and so I always felt that to become a teacher just like mom would be defaulting; it would mean I couldn’t think for myself, that I was lacking in self-motivation and ambition.  I was told by my teachers that I could be anything I wanted to be, but the subtext was that it ought to be something impressive. Preferably something that broke gender stereotypes. (Yes, teachers actually told me this.)

So I decided to be an astronaut, and I majored in physics in college.  My plans changed in college as I matured, lost my 20-20 vision, and gained perspective. I got a husband, a PhD, and two kids, and we ended up on an island in Maine, where I freelanced, tinkered, and volunteered at the kids’ schools.  I was a coach for the middle school math team,  led some science activities for the gifted program, hosted a 6th grade science-fiction book club, and helped with the lego robotics team.  In my spare time, I made things. I made wedding cakes. I made kitchen cabinets. I built a staircase. I roofed a shed. I tiled floors, knitted sweaters, made jewelry, stained glass, and fiber art.  The common thread in almost everything I did was math.  I loved the planning , the calculating, the drawing things out on graph paper….  Sometimes I felt like the plans were more of a work of art than the final project was.

So what made me decide to get certified in math?

Dan Meyer’s TED Talk, “Math class needs a makeover.”  (

I watched the talk.  I rewatched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized that everything I loved about science was really mathematics, and that I had hundreds of real-world applications in my head. I started planning lessons in my head. I could connect math not only to rocket science and seismology, but also to gear ratios and landscaping and carpentry and art, not just in an abstract, textbookish way, but because I had actually done it before. I knew and loved math as my helper and friend and as a source of wonder about the world.  I wanted others to feel the same way.

So now I’m doing it. It has not been easy, but that’s not why I chose it.  I chose it because it is hard, I’m smart, and it’s something worthwhile that I think uses my strongest talents.  The parts that are hardest for me (organization, dealing with disenchanted students, understanding what keeps kids from understanding) are places where I can—where I need to— grow as a person.

So to those who assume I’m a (saint/masochist/loony), I say, “No, I’m not.” (Well, maybe loony….)  I just chose a job where my unique assets are uniquely valuable.  To those who say I (couldn’t get/didn’t want/am living in the wrong place for) a real job in my field, I say, “That’s not it.” (Although geophysics jobs are a bit thin on the ground in Downeast Maine….)  I could have been an OK geophysics researcher. Maybe even a very good one.  But my heart isn’t really in it.  On the other hand, I can be a very good math teacher.  Maybe even, with a lot of work, a great one.  And my whole heart is in it.

Thanks, Mr. Meyer.

And thanks, Mom.