As educators, one of the core values we look to instill in our students, parents, and colleagues is a growth mindset, a constant yearning to improve and a deep belief that everyone can improve. A key behavior that helps to cultivate this value is seeing the best in others. Yet this is not an easy thing to do. Our natural inclination as human beings is to view ourselves in the best possible light, and that can have a powerful impact on the way we view others.
When others fail or make mistakes, we tend to blame them. When we fail or make mistakes ourselves, however, we blame the situation. This tendency is called the fundamental attribution error. For example, when a student fails to complete several homework assignments, we assume they are irresponsible. But when we miss several deadlines in our own professional lives we almost always explain the behavior in context: “I am responsible, but this week I’ve had a busier-than-average workload and I’m dealing with a sick family member.” Essentially, our default is to assume the best in ourselves but not in others.
Luckily, there are ways we can improve on this tendency.
While we might not be predisposed to assuming the best in people, we are, in fact, hardwired to help them. We have an automatic response to feel with others when we witness their pain, discomfort, or struggle thanks to what is called the mirror neuron system. This system is essentially the neural foundation of empathy.When we witness others’ suffering, we are biologically compelled to help them.
The more we identify with a person, the more our brains are activated in sympathy with that person. Of course, we have to be present—that is, engaged in our encounter so as to notice that person’s suffering—before our biological response kicks in. When it does, we begin to see others through the same forgiving lens we apply to ourselves. Proximity is undoubtedly powerful and important, but it’s still not sufficient.
We also have to be mindful.
When we hurry through our days consumed with ourselves, our responsibilities, and our concerns, we don’t fully notice other people, let alone their needs. A famous study from the 1970s really drives home this point. The study involved randomly assigning seminarians into two groups; one was instructed to prepare a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the other received a topic unrelated to helping others. The seminarians were then told the sermon time and location had been changed and put into different time constraint conditions. Finally, the researchers placed a man in (fake) distress along the seminarians' route to test who would stop to help.
It turns out not even seminarians who had just prepared a sermon on the Good Samaritan will help a person in distress if they also happen to be in a rush. The more extreme the perceived time constraint, the less likely participants were to help. In hurriedness, we don’t notice others, and we have no chance of strengthening our muscles for empathy or compassion. We need to practice mindfulness in our hectic days.
Assuming the best of colleagues, parents, and students may not necessarily come naturally. But by simply acknowledging and becoming more aware of our human tendencies and biases, we can start to foster this habit, which can lead to a growth mindset—for teachers and students alike.