The Strongest Classroom

Connection, courage and possibility help me to navigate a strongman contest (insert any challenge in the blank).

Noticing the connection of the process that I share with all of the competitors to improve and grow builds a feeling of community for me. We share struggles, worries and adversities. We share gains, wins and celebrations. Noticing the frustrations and the joy, and experiencing this contrast of emotions together builds “a bonfire of belonging”(a beautifully strong phrase I heard from author Brad Montague).

It takes courage for me to get out there, to push to my edges and possibly beyond in a public setting. At the competition when I look around I see courage in action from the other competitors, the coaches, the judges, the spotters, the host who was brave enough to undertake and organize the event. All the different ways of being brave that I see, and the courage that I know I can’t see, motivate and inspire me to keep going.

Being in that atmosphere of connection and courage I can bravely try. I can go for it!!. I can risk being seen trying and failing, because I know, they know, what success is. I may leave bruised up from the all out effort, and with failed attempts, but I gained insight into how to try it again. I leave feeling fired up for the possibility that’s ahead of me, next time!!

Knowing that I am not alone in this difficult endeavor and bravely, repeatedly choosing to keep going, leads to success no matter the outcome.

From this environment of bravery to try and a community connected by growth, there seems to be a high level of encouragement and care. Care for myself, care for performing to my best and  care for others. That is an AMAZING byproduct of being in a strongman contest (insert your challenge in the blank). 

That is exactly what I want to foster as the teacher  in a classroom (challenge), a caring and encouraging community. Students need time to build a “strongman community” in their classroom before they can take risks to make learning gains. If we don’t allow for that time to build that strong community, and nurture a safe space to grow, which leads to caring, we are limiting great potential and children’s joy of dreaming big and going for it!!

What Feels Right?

As I am transitioning into the working world as a substitute educator I feel a renewed sense of coming back to what I love again. That being said, I still have this worrisome feeling of finding out that I don’t fit where I used to. There is only one way to find out if that is true or not, and that is to go and see what happens and how it feels. I have worked one day and have three more days upcoming on the schedule.

A substitute teacher needs a thing…is it puppets, a rock collection, a love for insects?!? A thing they love to share and sparks their interest, and therefore motivates and interests the children too. What is it? I am not sure. Books and stories definitely but that’s not quite it. I have been thinking about it a lot. What can I bring with me that I will love sharing with the children. As a guest, as a newcomer in their classroom. What motivates me to step into the classroom? What can I share with them that will contribute something positive to their day? What feels right? So many questions.

As I go through this transition of returning to the classroom… discovering…adapting…changing…rediscovering…building…rebuilding…Creating….recreating…noticing…it’s right there! Building, creating. As I step into the classroom I have a wonderful opportunity to build/create a good day with the students, together. To work hard, be productive, cooperate and feel joyful about what we all can do. I think my thing is building together, and learning to notice that we always have the opportunity to keep building and creating. Imagine if we are always willing to try and build and create!! The hope, the possibility of what we can do opens up!! There are so many different and amazing ways to do that.

Next week as I step into a first grade classroom I will be bringing a deconstructed snowman with me. The snowballs and all his fun pieces all fit in a little case. We will be reusing some cardboard and transforming it into something fun. We will use materials in different ways. Coffee filters become snowballs!

At the end of the day we can notice: Together we built a snowman. Each one of us added something. We endeavored to build a good day together and this snowman represents our day. What a fun creation!! What a joyful, productive day!! We did it!!

I did a similar activity with a class of 3rd graders right before the holiday break. We built a candy cane. I learned a lot that day about how to implement this idea better. For one, make sure that the items are going to stick well and that they are very easy to attach!! Adding to what we are building should be able to happen fairly quickly and easily. We have classroom work to do that requires our attention, this is work on the side!

The great news is that I did feel a positive impact from it. The students were very motivated to add to the building of the candy cane. At the end of the day when we stopped to take a final look at it and see what we had created together and they were very interested.

When I said, “Look at what we designed and built together today!” there was a feeling of joy and excitement! When I pointed out that each one of them contributed to making the candy cane the way it is there was a sense of community, which was a wonderful way to end the day. 

As mentioned, one of our challenges was getting the pieces to stick. When one student said, “Turn it upside down and see if anything falls off!” We did. It was silent, we turned it over slowly, all eyes carefully watching and we held our breath.  When not a single piece fell off I looked at them with raised eyebrows and we all cheered! We were all rooting for the candy cane we built to hold together! Hooray! My heart was happy.

Finished piece.

My Thoughts on Intelligence

I want children to believe, “I belong here, I can do this, I am brave.” When they step into the classroom they should be flexing those thoughts, experiencing challenges and building skills in perseverance and resilience.  I know that not all children believe they are smart and/or can learn when they are in the classroom. 

The following excerpt comes from the book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstong. It is from a section in the book where the author is describing how he introduces students to the theory of multiple intelligences. 

“I usually begin by asking, ‘How many of you think you are intelligent?” I’ve discovered there seems to be an inverse relationship between the number of hands that go up and the grade level that I am teaching-That is, the lower the grade level the more hands go up; the higher the grade level, the fewer the hands.”

Pair that discovery with this survey shared in the book Mindsets in the Classroom By Mary Cay Ricci and the urgency to address this decline in confidence and sense of ability as our children progress through school must be improved. She surveyed students about their beliefs about intelligence. She used the following statements in the survey:

  • Everyone can learn new things. (a growth mindset)
  • Some kids are born smarter than others. (a fixed mindset)
  • We can change how smart we are. (a growth mindset) 

Here are the percentages of children who believe they can learn new things and they can change how smart they are, by grade level:

  • 100% of kindergartners 
  • 90% of first graders
  • 82% of second graders
  • 58% of third graders
illustration of results

The percentage of students who believe in a growth mindset has a downward trend, just like the number of students who think they are intelligent.

A child (adult too), who doesn’t think they are intelligent, and who doesn’t believe they can learn new things doesn’t feel in control of their path, because there isn’t anything better to move towards.  That helplessness leads to feeling stuck ,and  unmotivated. From there, participation can drop and interest and effort can fall. All of these outcomes are difficult obstacles for teachers and students to overcome.

In part, I believe this is happening because we are teaching for test results. We are trying to upload as many facts and as much information as we can into our children before the test taking time comes. Due to pressure and limited time, we are overlooking the skills and understanding they need to process, and find meaning and motivation in all the work/information given to them. Time is taken away to experience, explore and find connection with all they are being shown. For the students, and for the teacher, school is a race to cover all the needed information before testing, taking the tests and then possibly feeling defeated by a seemingly fixed label (test results they have seen, heard, or felt).

We can make progress to lessen these downward slopes. A shift in our goals, a thoughtful change in our focus in our schools, in our classrooms and at home. We can  help children to expand the word intelligent to be more encompassing, have a broader meaning. We can teach them about the brain and it’s amazing abilities to learn, relearn, problem solve, adapt, and connect. We can also help them to strengthen their mindset by providing appropriate challenges and time to explore and grow, in safe spaces where they feel it is okay to wonder, try, fail, connect with others through struggle and progress. We can share tools with them to help them to practice their perseverance, and resilience. 

This quote from the book Going Right by Logan Gelbrich points us to a shift we can make, a direction we can head, 

“…in a world where we think results are everything. I’m asking you to have a mindset that says the process is everything.” 

We need a shift from too much focus and time spent on testing and results. Instead we can focus, with more care and energy, on building up their understanding of the process of growth that we all share, and helping them to notice their amazing ability (intelligence in action) to adapt, problem solve, persevere and learn new things as they navigate towards better.

We can focus more on the right side of this diagram and allow for movement to happen for all children so they continue to believe in their intelligence and their ability to make progress.

By Kay Lybeck,

Awareness of Labels, A Stepping Stone to Growth

“Nurture your mind with great thoughts, for you will never go any higher than you think.” -Benjamin Disraeli

As a parent, and a teacher,  I want to help children develop an awareness about their character, the power of their mind, about the path that lies ahead of them as they grow. Ideas about life, our role in it, how we go about creating the life we dream of…those are all huge understandings that never end, life lessons that change and grow as we change and grow.

We have such an important job as parents, care givers, educators and that can make for a lot of pressure. Our role is important, it assists in building a strong foundation, but we are a part of children’s journey not the entirety. This quote comes to mind: “Humans are not born once and for all on the day their mother’s give birth to them…life obliges over and over again to give birth to themselves.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

We assist in lighting the spark, planting the seed, keeping the window of possibility open in our children’s lives by providing opportunities for moments of self awareness that they can build upon. If we view our role as allowing for stepping stones, jumping off points for self awareness and understanding of others it allows us to feel a bit less pressure. Powerful lessons for sure, but not so pressure filled, because we are just a part of their process, not the whole! They begin to navigate with courage, self belief and a sense of belonging as we assist and guide.

One stepping stone to self awareness that we can help our children begin to connect with and understand is labels.  Labels are abundant in our society. The definition of label, as it relates to people, is a classifying phrase or name applied to a person, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive. The words restrictive and inaccurate are in the definition of label, and yet we (humans) take them on and let them shape our lives in so many ways.  

We can help our children be aware of labels and the role they might play in their lives.  Labels are everywhere, especially in the online world. Labels can lead to a restricted, fixed mindset. “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success-without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)

We can provide children with an opportunity to think about labels, how labels can make them feel stuck, and build an awareness about how they respond to labels.

We can use a visual model.  A visual analogy using two cans of food.

Show them a can of food with a label on it, suh as a can of green beans. Ask:

  • What’s in this can?
  • Can you name five things that could be in this can?
  • What could we make with this can of green beans?

Help them notice:

  • We are having a hard time coming up with more than one answer of what could be in this can, because the label is telling us what it is.
  • We can think of some different dishes we could make (soup, casserole, salad), but it’s limited.

 Show your child a can of food with the label removed.   


  • Could you name 5 things that could be in this can?  
  • Could it be something that goes in a dessert? 
  • Could it be an ingredient used to make tacos?  
  • Could it be something sour? 

Help them notice:

  • The answers of what it could be seem limitless.  
  • So many possibilites.  
  • The potential for what it could be made into are many.  
  • Try and use these words as you are discussing what it could be:  limitless, possibilities, and potential. Those are strong capable words, just like we are strong, capable, adaptable human beings.
  • Talk about the difference between the labeled can and the unlabeled can.

Build the connection between this canned food analogy to us as humans. There is one label these two have in common, which is canned food.  Let’s compare this to humans.

Ask them:

  • What is our one label?  Human.  
  • Are there other labels humans have or give to themselves or take on? Age..race…grade…job…personality…strengths…talents…weaknesses.
  • Can you think of some labels that might be associated with you? Share some of your own labels you have or had.
  • Do they hold you back in some way?
  • Do we have to let them hold us back?
  • Can I change this label? How?
  • Do I label others? (connection, understanding, empathy, compassion)

In society, in families we will always have labels, because they help us organize, but we are capable and with awareness we can go beyond labels and not let them define us or others.  Think about the labeled green beans…can they become a dessert? It is not likely that green beans will become a dessert, but if someone is thinking outside of the box, with a different perspective…it is possible.  Cauliflower has become a pizza crust.  That’s beyond what I ever imagined.   We can go beyond labels.

This discussion can be a simple to the point awareness of labels, just an aha moment,  or it can expand into stereotypes, subjectivity,  perspective, image, excuses…from canned food to whoa some deep connections.  It all depends on the age, interest and understanding of the child.  It can definitely be a lesson that can be returned to, referenced as needed and built upon.


  • Are you being held back by a label right now?  
  • How is it limiting you?
  • What would you choose to do if that wasn’t there?  

Labels have a lot of power to control us, but as humans we have the capability and control in how we respond to labels.  If we are aware of labels, and that they can limit us, that is a powerful self awareness to have, and gives us control of our path.  Next if we understand that we are always changing as humans and we can go beyond labels we will build empathy for ourselves and others.  This opens up possibilities and gives us the willingness and motivation to move forward.  Instead of labels moving us towards a fixed mindset, and feeling stuck we are helping our children build a powerful self awareness and understanding that with opportunity, support and effort we can change, grow and move forward. We are helping them foster a growth mindset. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work-brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

We can all assist our children with opening doors to capability, growth and possibility so they can navigate their own courageous path with hope. This analogy is one way to start a discussion, that might begin a thought process, build an understanding, open up new paths. That is a fantastic stepping stone we can provide.