In the last post, we looked at how the self-fulfilling prophesy can affect teachers and students, and a way to start changing those expectations. But how do we get these ideas about kids in the first place? We will look at that and at another idea for working with THAT student.
Have you ever heard another teacher say something like, “Oh, well, you know she’s my BD kid,” or “What can you expect with parents like that?” or “Can you believe that kid was allowed to leave the house dressed like that?” All of those statements show that a teacher has formed a certain opinion about a student, and that s/he believes the other teachers share that opinion.
We form opinions about things all day long. Our opinions are based upon a set of rules our brains have set up to keep us safe, emotionally and physically. Those mental rules are based on our experiences, our up-bringing, and our values and beliefs. The brain evaluates whatever is in our environment based on those rules and sends messages that govern the way we think and the way we act. We are not always conscious of the rules our brain has set up for us, but we are influenced by those rules anyway. (If you want to read a short article on how we form opinions of others, look at this brief overview: https://psychologenie.com/how-do-we-form-impressions-about-others )
(When the brain’s rules add up to “threat” the body responds in a way that we label “stress”! Understanding how and why we form opinions can help us manage our stress levels.)
Most schools are based on middle class values and norms (Indiana University, 2016). Anything that falls outside of those values tends to be looked at as something that is not desirable and a threat to the environment. Add to the mix our experiences as brand new teachers who were not particularly adept at classroom management. Our experiences with students who act out become part of our belief system about who is and who is not capable in the classroom. Toss into the mix what other teachers have said about this or that kid and their families, what we read in a student’s file, and experiences with THAT student’s family, siblings, or friends. Remember, the brain’s rules are set up to keep us safe from threats, so anything that deviates from what it sees as normal is perceived as a threat to our school environment and “threat” translates as “stressor”.
So our opinions, usually unconscious, are based on our beliefs and experiences. But research shows that there are certain student characteristics that will most likely cause the teacher to mentally classify the student as being less capable than other students. Take a look at these characteristics:
- Gender – believing that boys or girls are better at X; this could also be when a child of one gender does things that are usually associated with the other gender, like boys who cry easily or girls who get into fist fights
- Socio-economic status – believing that those who live in poverty behave or act in certain ways and believing that those with more money than the norm behave in certain ways
- Ethnicity – this can include things like being from a different religion than the majority of the students or adults in the school
- Cultural background – culture is a complex topic, but the short version is this: if a student’s culture differs from the teacher’s or the majority of the students s/he can be viewed as less capable
- Previous experience with siblings or relatives – believing that if a student’s older sibling behaved in a certain way, this student will, too.
- Clothing – if a student wears dirty clothes, clothes that are dissimilar to other students, clothes that are too big or too small, clothes that would be more appropriate on an older or younger child, etc.
- Hygiene – a student who appears dirty or who smells, and students who do things like pick their noses, wipe their noses on their hands or sleeves.
- Being “too quiet” or “too loud”
- Having a chronically messy desk or locker, or turning in work that is messy or crumpled
- Acting immaturely
- Parents who are different from the parents of other children
- Labels – students who are labeled as needing extra help, who have been classified as needing special education or Title I help are often viewed as less capable
I have never met a teacher who would say s/he treats any student poorly. Every teacher would say she believes wholeheartedly that every student can learn and that s/he treats students equally. And I believe every teacher truly wants to treat each and every student with love and compassion. But our values and beliefs can get in the way. Remember, much of our opinions are formed unconsciously.
No matter how a teacher forms his beliefs that certain students are more capable than others, what happens as a result of those beliefs is that he treats the students differently in very subtle ways. He smiles more at those he thinks are more capable. He directs certain kinds of questions to the students he believes are more capable and a different kind of questions to those he believes are less capable. She calls on students to answer different kinds of questions based on her beliefs about the students. In short, the teacher creates a very different kind of social and emotional climate in the classroom for those she believes are more or less capable than others. And this happens in the exact same classroom at the exact same time.
Students are perceptive and they can tell if a teacher likes them, or if a teacher seems stressed out when interacting with them.
So if this is mostly unconscious, how do we change it? The first thing to do is to look for good things about each student. You were asked to do that in the last blog post. The next thing is this:
Look at the bulleted list above and think about whether or not THAT student fits into any of those categories. If s/he does, think about how you might be treating him/her differently than other students. If nothing particularly comes to mind, don’t panic. Remember, much of this is unconscious.
Next, resolve to get to know THAT student a little better. What does THAT student do when not in school? What makes THAT student laugh? What does THAT student know a lot about? What does THAT student want to be when s/he grows up? Now, you may not always like or approve of the answers to those questions, but that is not the point. The idea is to get to know THAT student a little bit better.
The final thing to do, to improve classroom management, is to try to set a friendly tone for THAT student and for all the students entering the classroom. Harry and Rosemary Wong recommend greeting every student at the door. Standing at the door and saying, “Good morning” or “How are you today?” or “Did you see that play in the last quarter?” to each student is a step towards creating a friendly, respectful classroom environment. If you want to take another step forward, try shaking hands with each student as s/he is about to enter. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. When we have had negative experiences with a student, it is much more difficult to look at him/her directly, to smile at him/her, let alone shake his/her hand. On the other hand, it is a bit more difficult to act negatively towards someone you’ve greeted in this way.
Remember, there are no magic bullets when trying to turn around THAT student. Celebrate your baby steps. You may even want to make a little, secret list of the things you’ve done to create a positive relationship with THAT student, and try to add something to that list every day.
Next time we will look at another idea you can start using right away with THAT student.
Post Script: Immediately after publishing this post, I stumbled over this article about a new study that shows amazing things that happen because teachers greet students at the door. You can read the article here: https://www.educationdive.com/news/new-study-suggests-that-greeting-students-with-a-positive-message-yields-be/532359/
Ashley Peterson-DeLuca, C. M. (2016, October 11). Top five qualities of effective teachers, according to students. Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Pearson Education: https://www.pearsoned.com/top-five-qualities-effective-teachers/
Indiana University. (2016, August). Teachers Favor Middle Class Behaviors by Students. Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Science Daily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160823125631.htm
Sezer, S. (May 2017). Novice Teachers’ Opinions on Students’ Disruptive Behaviours: A Case Study. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research (EJER), 199-219.
Wong, H. and Wong, R. (2018). The First Days of School: How to be an effective teacher 5e. Harry K. Wong Publications.