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March 2016 Tip of the Month: Do You Believe Students Can Achieve?

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
March 16, 2016

Tip Of The Month


Do You Believe Students Can Achieve?

In this month's newsletter we are highlighting great work happening at an alternative education center in Northern California, so I thought it would be a good fit to tell you about a recent visit to a continuation school that has implemented Organized Binder. A significant number of the students at this school qualify for special education, and many had recently been incarcerated. As I talked with the teachers, it became very clear that there were two types of teachers in the room: those who believed in their students’ ability to achieve, and those who did not. Not one landed between these polarities. One particular teacher, whom I’ll call Linda, is one of the most pessimistic teachers I have met. If one of her colleagues shared a student or class success she would immediately reply with, “Oh, my students could never do that” or “these kids just can’t do that.” She had a rebuttal for every positive thing said about the students.

Another teacher, Amy, shared her students were now arriving on time to class, staying organized, doing better on assessments and exams, acting more appropriately in class, and experiencing academic success—a first, for some of these students. Amy showed me a few of her students’ binders, which were perfectly organized. Most people would probably not assume that this shining example came from a continuation school whose student demographic is largely special education.

What is interesting, or troubling (read: annoying), about this situation is that Linda and Amy share many of the same students, and certainly the same student demographic. In Amy’s class these students are achieving and making significant academic gains, while in Linda’s class they are failing miserably. Amy credits The Organized Binder for the change in her class and students; Linda implemented, albeit poorly (“because these kids can’t do it”), the same system but experienced much weaker results.

Why were the same students with the same tools successful in one class but not another? As I thought about this I noted that much of Linda’s and Amy’s reality is the same: both have the same students and/or student demographic, both have one or more full-time aides in the room, both teach multiple subjects, both have their own rooms…I could go on. The one difference I did identify, however, had reared its ugly head in our discussion: their confidence in their students’ ability to achieve.

“A teacher’s beliefs about students’ chances of success in school influence the teacher’s actions with students, which in turn influence students’ achievement. If the teacher believes students can succeed, she tends to behave in ways that help them succeed. If the teacher believes that students cannot succeed, she unwittingly tends to behave in ways that subvert student success or at least do not facilitate student success. This is perhaps one of the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching because it is typically an unconscious activity.”

It is quite simple—what you believe about a student can influence, perhaps even determine, whether or not they succeed academically. If the teacher is convinced a student cannot succeed, then that student will most likely not succeed. Teachers have to believe in their students’ ability to achieve even if it flies in the face of logic and reason! It is our job to help students find academic success before we teach content.

How do teachers get to a place where they don’t believe in their students’ ability? When does that happen? Why was Linda so convinced that her students could not achieve? I am certain the answer lies in noncognitive skills, or what I call the “doing” in a classroom. Let me explain by relaying a story I heard on NPR.

The report was on a man who gives unique guitar lessons known as “call and response” to young aspiring musicians. Using this method, which teaches through sound alone, the instructor calls out a note or chord and plays it, and the students respond by playing the same note or chord back to the instructor. In time, students learn by hearing and not just through traditional methods like reading music and playing scales. During the radio interview the students are heard in the background trying to follow along with the instructor. One student in particular stood out to me because his or her guitar was so terribly out of tune and dissonant—it was like listening to a bad high school band playing the national anthem at a basketball game.

My first thought was this: how could this student learn anything if the teacher’s D chord sounds completely different than his or her own D chord? Surely that must be confusing for the student. How can one teach a student to play the guitar using “call and response” if the student’s guitar is out of tune?

The same is true for the classroom. Consider the guitar as the “doing” in the classroom and the notes and chords, or the music, as the “content”.  Unless we first tune the instrument we cannot play the correct notes and chords to make harmonious music. Too often, teachers try to teach the content without first teaching students how to be students - exposing them to the noncognitive skills and factors they need to achieve. This is problematic because we expect students to just innately “play music,” but when they fall short of our expectations we may begin to internalize beliefs about their ability to achieve—and our beliefs in turn influence, or even determine, their ability to achieve (reread Marazano quote). This is a vicious cycle.

Think of it this way: letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and paragraphs make essays. Teachers would never expect a student to write an essay before learning words, sentences, paragraphs, and their interplay. Why then do we expect this with content?

Is this what happened to Linda? Did she expect her students to “play music” too soon in the school year?  Did her students therefore fall short of her expectations? Did she then form a negative opinion about their ability to achieve? I believe so.

Tragically, this can be compounded year to year, ultimately defining a student’s academic experience. What a student’s previous teachers believed about him strongly influenced how successful the student was that year in school. If the student was not successful, he now risks being labeled as an “underperformer,” “underachiever,” etc. If he was successful, he was likely labeled “student” or “academic,” etc.  If these labels stick, students (and their CUM folders) will then carry those labels into the next school year, might be reinforced by their new teachers.

Is this fair? Linda, more than any other factor in her classroom, was the reason students were failing. Her students were destined to fail the moment they walked into her class each day. The heartbreak is that Linda’s and Amy’s students carried their negative labels even before they were enrolled in this school. These students, possibly more than most, need teachers to believe in them! My experience has been that when students spend their time in classrooms where their negative labels are reinforced, as in Linda’s class, they act accordingly and ultimately fail.

When educators expose students to noncognitive skills before or while they teach content, students will experience success and begin to see themselves as students/scholars.

When teachers believe their students can succeed it is much more likely that they will succeed!

Thank you for reading and sharing,


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