How Not to Teach Our Kids: The 'Mrs. Z's' of This World

Recently my team shared a blog post with me, where one of our volunteers recounted her experience of meeting a little girl who doubted her abilities, and was hesitant to try to solve one of our science puzzles at the Arizona Science Center, saying that she was "not smart enough." This story instantly took me back to the sixth grade and a defining encounter I had with my teacher... we'll call her Mrs. Z.

I was a precocious kid, curious and eager to learn, but frankly often bored... and to be honest sometimes as focused on cheerleading as academics. Mrs. Z clearly didn't get me. She was a strict old-school teacher who expected everyone to conform to her way of teaching and thinking. You toed the line. A big part of that expectation was to not question her. She talked and you listened. But that was not how my mind worked... I was endlessly curious not just about the "what" but also the how and why of what was being taught. Just memorizing facts did not hold my interest. Mrs. Z clearly picked up on this, but not in a good way.

One day during a lesson assignment I raised my hand to ask for some help. I wanted to understand more to be sure I did it right. But Mrs. Z simply said, "If you weren't so lazy you could do it... You're never going to amount to anything." Bam, there it was... being told I was lazy and would never amount to anything by a teacher. Looking back I wonder how many others have been told that. Had someone told that little girl visiting the Center that she was not smart enough to figure things out? How many others have accepted these characterizations and just given up? This experience and memory got me thinking about what guided my life on a course that overcame Mrs. Z's harsh judgment... and what lessons could I share.

First, I had a great supportive family that instilled a self-confidence in me that Mrs. Z could not so easily shake. But equally important, I encountered other great teachers and mentors that showed me the way.

While I'm giving Mrs. Z the courtesy of anonymity, I am going to give a big shout out here to a fantastic teacher I had later on, Mrs. Kovenot. I was struggling in her high school chemistry class, but rather than calling me out as dumb or lazy, she was endlessly encouraging. "Keep trying, you can do it!" ... and most importantly, "It's really OK to fail... in fact you'll learn a lot more from your failures through struggle than any easy successes." Wow, what a life lesson! I ended up doing well in that class, but more importantly, Mrs. Kovenot's guidance helped me build the foundation for my entire academic life, and later career.

This is the kind of teaching we need, especially for our young girls who are so often asked to conform, or are judged based on stereotypes of another era; who are told they are not good enough at math and science, or should set their expectations low. This is precisely where the great programs of the Arizona Science Center come in, and why I'm so passionate about my work. With programs like the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair, and Camp Innovation, we work to break down barriers and open worlds of possibility for all of our youth. We need the Mr. and Mrs. Kovenots to guide the way for them.

And Mrs. Z? I went back to visit my old school many years later and she was still there. Now as a CEO I wanted to show her that I had in fact turned out just fine. Her comment? "Well, I'm glad to see you're not lazy anymore." Priceless.