Why Believing in Your Students Matters

When I hear statements from educators like: “I have the worst class I’ve had in years,” “These kids can’t do it” or “They don’t want to learn” my heart breaks for the students in their classes and in their schools. I know teaching is complex. The work is hard and seemingly never ending. I will never minimize that but the reality is that if we don’t believe in our students and our ability to impact their trajectory in life, we simply won’t.

Have you heard of the Pygmalion Effect also knows as the Self-fulfilling Prophecy?  This comes out of research by Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) that demonstrated how teacher expectations influence student performance both positively and negatively. When teachers have positive expectations they influence performance positively, and likewise, negative expectations influence performance negatively. This reinforcing cycle where beliefs shape expectations, which shape actions and behaviors that impact outcomes for better and worse.

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Creating the climate for success begins with aligning beliefs, actions, and expectations.

What do you believe?

If we really want to create learning environments in our schools where all learners are valued and seen as capable of achieving desired outcomes, we have to begin with the belief that they can.  One of my professors pushed my thinking early on in career about terms we often use (and confuse): ability and achievement.

  • Ability: talent, skill, or proficiency in a particular area
  • Achievement: a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill

Our beliefs about these two terms and how we view our students is linked to Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset.  If we believe that intelligence is fixed and don’t see opportunities to grow or develop learner’s skills and talents, it turns out that we probably won’t. On the other hand, when we believe we can learn and improve through hard work and effort we can create the conditions and experiences that lead to increased achievement and improved outcomes.

Do you practice what you preach?

It’s one thing to say that we believe in students but when there is a lack of congruence with what we say and what we do, actions always speak louder than words.  Katie Wright highlights this in her post Do as I Say, Not as I Do.

A  teacher may say aloud to students, “Mistakes help your brain grow!,” but then in the next breath that same teacher might praise rapid responses from students instead of allowing for sufficient wait time.  Here, students discern the teacher prefers a fast response and does not place value on grappling with tough questions or making mistakes.  Another example: if a teacher intervenes quickly when a student is struggling to reply to a question (with the positive intention of helping that student to save face in front of peers), the student discerns the teacher actually has a low estimation of her or his ability.

What are your expectations?

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur. (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)” There is a lot of talk about creating opportunities for students to interact and have more voice and choice in their own learning, but I also hear teachers who hold back because they aren’t sure that “their students” would actually be capable of this type of work.

As an example, I was working with a group of experienced teachers to shift to more learner-centered, inquiry-based projects.  We explored a variety of new approaches, collaborated on new ideas, and everyone was excited in theory but had a variety of reasons for why it wouldn’t work in their classrooms.   Teachers were facing challenges of pacing guides, time, resources, the population, testing etc. but I didn’t let them off the hook and each of the teachers tried something new in their classrooms.  Albeit, depending on their comfort level, there was a wide range of implementation where some tried a new strategy, others tried a whole lesson and others were able to implement larger projects.  With the exception of 1 teacher out of 25, each teacher shared about how their students had “exceeded their expectations.”  This teacher’s reflection summarizes the group’s collective experiences:

Although I had faith that my students would produce quality work for this assignment, what they produced exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I should not have been surprised; for when you give students a sense of ownership and choice over their learning the creativity this unleashes often leads to great results. The results of this assignment make me want to develop similar projects in the future.

We can’t change who we serve but we can change how we serve them.

I am often asked how to change teacher mindsets and the reality is you can’t just change how people believe.  Sometimes the best way to change beliefs is by creating conditions and experiences for teachers to try new things and see what is possible.  I can tell you all day long that the learners in your context are capable but you probably won’t believe me until you experience it.  So, you are going to have to take a leap of faith and try something to see for yourself.  I believe in you:)

References:

Rosenthal, R., & Babad, E. Y. (1985). Pygmalion in the Gymnasium. Educational Leadership, 43(1), 36-39.

 

9 thoughts on “Why Believing in Your Students Matters

  1. Great article Katie. I totally agree with you and wanted to add that support from leadership is key when dealing with teachers who have difficulty with their class. Without support, these teachers lose their own ability to believe in themselves and can get caught in a trap. What are your thoughts on this?

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  2. I consider myself a teacher who believes in her students, but as I read this post, I thought about “the worst class I teach.” I see 26 classes a week so it’s pretty easy to fall in the trap of comparing and labeling. Anyway, this week when that class came into my lab I decided to actively believe in them. I started class by telling them so and pumping them up for a great time together. About 45 minutes later, the parent volunteer in my room Commented, “I can’t believe how well behaved they’re being!” I replied, “I can.” Thank you for the reminder to reset my mindset. Perfect timing!

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