Students are profoundly influenced by the messages they get from the significant people in their lives about their ability to learn. Many low-confidence, underperforming students—often children of color and children of poverty—have been receiving messages their whole lives that they are not smart enough (perhaps smart overall, but certainly not smart in subject X, which could be math, writing, anything). They don’t see the point of putting forth more effort in an area where they are “dumb.”
If we are to eliminate the achievement gap, we have to change these students’ minds about their supposed low ability and persuade them about the benefits of becoming good students. To take on this mission we will need to be convinced ourselves that ability can be grown, and we will have to become convinced that learning can be accelerated for students who have experienced systematic disadvantages.
Our job then as educators, especially with students who are behind, is to:
- convince them that they can grow their ability
- show them how
- motivate them to want to
It is particularly important that we be consistent and authentic in sending three critical messages—this is important, you can do it, and I’m not going to give up on you—in every way we can, explicitly and implicitly, in our interactions with our students. That they get these messages from us consistently makes a big difference in their belief in themselves, their investment in school, and their ultimate achievement.
These messages don’t get sent by accident; they get sent through deliberate behavior we display in specific arenas of classroom life—that is, things we say and do. Very formal, reserved people and relaxed, outgoing teachers can both succeed in sending these messages. It is not a matter of style, but it is a matter of behavior.
50 Ways to Get Students to Believe in Themselves
In 1973 Paul Simon recorded a song titled “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Putting that syntax in a more serious title, below is a list of “50 Ways to Get Students to Believe in Themselves.” Each of these 50 ways is a way we would act in our teaching and in our schools if we wanted to press a comprehensive set of levers to get students to believe in themselves. The list is, in effect, the map for a call to action.
As you welcome students into your classroom for the new school year, think about what messages you are communicating verbally and nonverbally about your beliefs in your students’ abilities. Which of these 50 ways are you using to communicate high expectations for each student? Please share in the comments!
For a detailed explanation of the 50 ways, check out High Expectations Teaching: How We Persuade Students to Believe and Act on “Smart Is Something You Can Get” by Jon Saphier.