Wednesday / April 24

4 Sentences Educators Must Stop Staying About Students

This is part III of a four-part blog series on bias and teacher expectations. Click these links to access post I and post II

The language we use to talk about students matters. It reflects and shapes our perceptions, and most importantly, our expectations for student success. Sometimes the words we use to talk about students have biases within them we never intended. It’s easier to focus on our good intentions than to dig deeper into the implicit biases behind our words.

It’s time to change this—change our language together to reshape the relationship between schools and the students and families we serve.

Make a Courageous Commitment

In your school, make a courageous commitment to shift all staff conversations about kids and their families from a deficit mindset, which views diversity as a problem kids bear, to an asset mindset: one which truly values students and their communities for the diversity they bring.

Let’s get specific about what this looks like by reframing four of the most harmful statements commonly made about students of color, English learners (ELs), and students living in poverty.

Four Statements That Perpetuate Bias and Low Expectations

Please agree together to stop saying the following statements, and to speak up when you hear others say them:

“These students can’t…”

“They aren’t motivated.”

“They have no background knowledge.”

“Their parents don’t care about education.”

There are real issues to discuss in these sentences, and we should not be silent on the issues of students’ current achievement levels, motivation, prior knowledge, and family involvement; but we must reframe our conversations entirely.

We must be intentional in shifting our discourse from:

  • a fixed mindset to a growth mindset
  • assumption to inquiry
  • blame to ownership
  • generalizations to specificity
  • culturally biased to culturally relevant
Student Achievement
Instead of saying… Reframe your idea with a growth mindset, specificity, ownership, inquiry, and cultural relevance. Say and reflect:
Our students can’t…


These kids can’t…


ELLs can’t…


Black students don’t…

Some students can’t YET


(Name students) struggle specifically in these areas (be specific with the data).


We need to create more opportunities for our students to…


How might we better help our students be successful with…?


Background Knowledge
They have no background knowledge. Our school curriculum doesn’t connect to students’ background knowledge.


  • What experiences do students bring to the classroom?
  • What can they teach me?
  • What matters most to my students and their families?
  • How might ELLs’ experience knowing two languages give them an advantage over monolingual kids?
  • How might students’ experiences with more than one culture give them an advantage?
  • How might we improve how we connect learning to students’ prior experiences and values?


Our students are not motivated.

ELLs aren’t motivated.

Many of our African American and Latino boys are not motivated to achieve.

Our current approach to instruction does not motivate our students.

Our current approach does not engage the majority of our African American and Latino boys.


  • How might we change our texts, tasks, and/or tools to motivate and engage every learner?
  • How might we make instruction more culturally relevant?
  • How might we make instruction more engaging?
  • When in our teaching are our students most motivated? What can we learn from these experiences?

What implicit biases might exist in our school culture that de-motivates students? How will we address these?


Parent Involvement
Parents don’t care about education.


Their parents don’t participate in the school.


Parents don’t help at home.

Parents are involved in different ways than I would expect from my own experience with parent-school partnerships.

Our current efforts to increase parent involvement are a mismatch for our parent community.

Our school is not effectively engaging parents as partners.


  • What are parents’ values and goals regarding their children’s education?
  • What types of opportunities for school involvement best engage our parent communities?
  • How might we make school a welcoming and inclusive place for parents of all backgrounds?

How might we best support parents in supporting their students?

Collaborate to End Deficit Discourse about Kids

Please collaborate with colleagues to raise awareness of how we talk about students—especially students of color, ELLs, students in poverty, and any student group whose identity differs from majority culture in your school. Use my chart for reframing deficit statements, or create your own together. Post it in the staff room and use it to support one another in establishing and enacting a norm of respectful, asset-based talk about students and kids.

This isn’t just about changing our words. It’s about reshaping our mindsets together, in order to create effective and equitable schools, and in turn a more equitable society.

What deficit-based statement most bothers you?

Which are you most likely to say yourself?

How will you help end deficit discourse in schools?

Online Links:

A Framework for Educator Mindsets and Consequences by @RobFilback and A. Green

Challenge the Deficit Mindsets in Education by @GregBCurran

Culturally Relevant Teaching by Heather Coffey

Discrimination at School Harms Young ELLs, Study Says via @edweek

Do They Really Care? Latino Parent Involvement in Urban Schools by Desireé Vega

English Language Learners: Shifting to an Asset-Based Paradigm via Voices in Urban Education

Recommended Books and Articles: 

Browne, R. (2012). Walking the Equity Talk: A Guide for Culturally Courageous Leadership in School Communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Davis, B. (2012). How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Muhammad, A. (2015). Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap: Liberating Mindsets to Effect Change. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Nuri-Robins, Lindsey, Lindsey, & Terrell (2011). Culturally Proficient Instruction, 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Pollock, T. (2013). Unpacking Everyday “Teacher Talk” about Students and Families of Color: Implications for Teacher and School Leader Development.

Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale.

Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.

Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

Latest comments

  • As a Black male substitute teacher with parents of different races, who is in the minority of teachers in my district, who are White female teachers, some of whom seem to be indifferent toward their minority students of lower income backgrounds, I feel neglected by this article. I feel that students of European ancestry seem to also be overlooked by this article, as I am.
    I would like to think that I don’t have any biases toward any of my students of different backgrounds, although it is certainly possible that I do. I think that any teacher of any racial or economic background could be biased toward students who are of different cultural, racial, or economic backgrounds than themselves, whether those students are of Minority or White American backgrounds. Why not use the word “other” instead of “of color”? Isn’t it possible that a lower income teacher of color could be biased against students who are from upper class, middle class, or poor White American families?
    In order for those teachers of color, like myself, who are in the minority in our school districts, to truly benefit from this article, I believe that the author should have chosen different, more inclusive words for the benefit of teachers and students of every background.

  • We used this article for a faculty discussion, but the first thing I saw was a typo in the title. This is an old article, so maybe this can be fixed if this is going to exist for others to read? The article was helpful.

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