Why the Word “Smart” Makes My Stomach Turn…

I  used to love the word “smart.” To me, it had such positive connotations…Who doesn’t want to be thought of as smart? Who doesn’t want to think of their children as “smart”? Who doesn’t want their students leaving their classroom “smart”? Right? It is heard repeatedly in reference to students in parent conferences, PLC meetings and such. It felt like such a typical word, until now.

Over the past years, it is becoming one of my least favorite words. It literally starts to make my stomach turn. Since reading Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck’s works (http://joboaler.com/ and http://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/index.html) and hearing Jo speak on numerous occasions, I have such a new perspective on the impact of the work “smart.”

I work very hard in my classroom to believe in the power of yet. There are no longer students who know something vs those who do not. It is now students who have learned something and those who have just not learned it…yet. (Great read on that:  http://www.mathsolutions.com/nl44/feature-article.html I am also trying very hard to take that perspective with teachers as well. I now am much more thoughtful in my conversations with not only my students but with colleagues/parents/administration and the impact of the words I use. I focus my words on the work, not the person. In my class, we are not “smart or not-smart”, we are all learners.

This belief that I have made part of my being as an educator was truly put to the test the other day. My students were presented with information on a program meant to help students with organization and study skills be more successful. Ok, not really what I believe makes students more successful, but they had to go, so I sat with them and listened. I could possibly write a dissertation on everything that was wrong with the presentation from my perspective, however the heart of the problem was the mindset of the person presenting.  If I had to hear the word “Smart” one more time in that 20 minutes, I was going to explode. And every time the word was used, it was in connection to grades and state test scores. As my stomach turned and knotted, I wanted to yank my entire class out of the room. I saw all of my work in trying to move every student from fixed to growth mindset slowly circling the drain.

It finally brought tears to my eyes (melodramatic, I know) when one little girl raised her hand and asked, “So do we have to have straight A’s to do this?” and the presenter responded with something to the effect of “the students in the program now are smart and have mostly straight A’s, but she understands if a “C happens sometimes.” So, this little girl who would have truly benefited from just some extra attention at school, but does not have straight A’s (whatever that really means) was deflated. What message was just sent by those words? Now does she think she is not “smart”? Now does she think she is not “smart enough” to get in? At that point I could not contain myself, I raised my hand and addressed the group, and the presenters.

I would love to quote my exact words, but I was so frustrated by that point, I do not even know the exact words that came out of my mouth. I truly was focusing on trying not to say anything rude to the presenters while making a point to the students. I can tell you it was something like this…I had to tell the group that their grades/test scores do not define them. That everyone in the room can learn, grow and improve in anything they persevere through. That I see them working hard, working together and learning every day and those things will be invaluable as they go through life. Smart is not something you are, so please do not leave here thinking it is.

After addressing the students, I left to address the adults in charge of this program. Hopefully, this will change from here…I guess if they are “Smart”, it will 🙂

A sincere thank you to the people in my PLN who have a growth mindset. I continue to learn from you every day and my students are so much better for it!




3 thoughts on “Why the Word “Smart” Makes My Stomach Turn…

  1. Joy Kirr from IL, USA

    Oh, my goodness! Just reading this got me frustrated, too!! I would’ve held your hand up high in support! I have only seen Carol Dweck’s videos, but have the book on my shelf. What I read this year that has really affected my words is CHOICE WORDS by Peter Johnston. Oh. My. Goodness. I believe that every teacher should read this book. No. Every person who sees children every day should read it. I’m with you, MathMinds! 😀



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