For New York State Teacher of the Year Greg Ahlquist, students are a little like a tube of toothpaste. "Stick with me now," the Webster social studies teacher said, holding up a mangled tube of toothpaste.
"My wife is always ready to throw it out at this stage and I beg and plead with her, 'Don't throw it out! There is still more!' And I flatten it, roll it, squeeze it, use tools ... and I get two more weeks out of it." With toothpaste, so with students, Ahlquist said.
"Great teachers see potential where others see very little," Ahlquist said. "Great teachers call out potential even when, maybe especially when, the student cannot see it."
He recalled a sophomore, Morgan, who told him after taking the exam in AP World History, "I came into this class feeling like I was going to be the least intelligent one here and came out feeling just as smart as everyone else."
"That is the vocation of a teacher - to change students," Ahlquist said. "There is transformative power in the belief of one teacher in one student. It can change a life." This transformative power is proven in research, he said. He cited Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's research on mindsets which altered his own view on teaching.
"A student or teacher with a growth mindset believes that with time and effort, we can accomplish challenging tasks," he said. "A person with a fixed mindset believes that people are either good at something or they are not. They avoid tasks if they might fail." Ahlquist urged his colleagues to embrace the growth mindset.
"It is that philosophy that has not only shaped my teaching; it has also gone viral in our school district," with big results, he said. "We believe firmly that ALL students have potential."