Humans make assumptions about individuals based on what we see. Although we like to say that we get to know a person first, science suggests otherwise. Experiments have demonstrated that people make trait judgments based on seeing someone’s facial features after 100 milliseconds (Willis & Todorov, 2006). That’s one tenth of a second before we begin to speculate about other people’s likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness. These first assumptions cause us to find evidence that confirms those first impressions (such as “I knew I was right about her,”) that can lead to negative labels that harm students. How often have you heard these terms used to describe a young person?
These labels set into motion a cascade of diminished expectations, negative self-image, and self-fulfilling prophecies. These words also diminish our own effectiveness as educators. Interrupting the labeling cycle begins with you. We can’t help but be human, but we can take steps as educators to reduce negative labeling of students. Here are three strategies for doing so.
Know Your Students as Individuals
Although all those back-to-school activities for getting to know students have value, they often trail off as the school year heats up. Remember those interest surveys you collected in August? When was the last time you looked at them?
Interest is not static. A subject a student found absorbing a few months ago may have waned, and something else has taken its place. Administer those surveys again to update yourself and construct a chart to look for items that intersect with your subject. Then use them. Better yet, be explicit about why you chose a particular reading or project. Link your decisions directly to the interests your students have expressed.
Capitalize on those interests to forge deeper relationships with individuals, especially the hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach. Talk to them about their interests regularly. We like the 2×10 approach developed by Raymond Wlodkowski in 1983. For two minutes a day, for 10 days in a row (two school weeks), talk with that young person about anything but school. You may surprise yourself to realize how your own perceptions shift because of these intentional interactions.
Develop an Asset Map of Your Class
An education that defines students by their perceived deficits will never disrupt systems that perpetuate achievement gaps. These systems don’t just operate at the state, district, and school levels; individual classrooms function as microsystems. Deficit-based education does a disservice to teachers, too, as it prevents them from drawing on the tools they need to advance learning—namely, their students’ individual and cultural assets.
An asset map is a student-generated visual representation of the cultural and community resources they draw upon. A cultural asset map needs to stand alone so that others can view it without explanation. The medium you use might be as simple as chart paper and markers, or it might be a diorama of objects. A digital platform might be more suitable, such as a multimedia poster or you might add augmented reality to a physical display. Explain the project to students and use questions to guide them in their exploration. Younger students will likely respond well to those that encourage them to find out more about their family’s history, develop timelines of their own life, and identify places and traditions that are important to them:
- Who helps you?
- What do you know about your culture?
- Who can help you understand your culture?
- What traditions are important in your family?
- What traditions are important in your community?
Older students can add historical experiences that have shaped their ancestors’ lives, identify local community leaders and institutions they value, and report on their own advocacy and service. For example, adolescents might want to share the struggles they have experienced, the issues they care about in society, and the ways in which their ancestors have shaped their life.
Once completed, set up classroom gallery walks so that students can view the visual representations of each other. Even better, invite families to an evening function. A community-based showcase further extends your range as you build connections with the people most important in your students’ lives. Our students are walking asset maps waiting to be truly seen by us.
Eliminate Loaded Language from Your Vocabulary
There is a saying that “the words you use are the house you live in.” When we build a school that is filled with words like those listed earlier, we undermine our own efforts. In this case, we are our own worst enemy—and our students’, too. Listen closely for when you hear (or describe) a student using an educational shorthand that reduces the child to a few negative labels. We are not suggesting that we should ignore areas of needed growth. But descriptions that highlight what is not do not give us insight about where to begin. Ask questions that encourage others to include the child’s strengths and assets, as these are the entry points of intervention that accelerates, not remediates.
Be the Hero in Someone Else’s Story
Your own personal influence on the learning lives of students is profound and long-lasting. If the evidence of the negative implications of teacher beliefs about students feels discouraging to you, then you have missed a vital point. It is a testimony of just how powerful you are. Rabbi Harold Kushner interviewed hundreds of people who had found success despite setbacks early in life and asked them how they succeeded. He said that invariably the answer began with these four words: “There was this teacher . . .” (Scherer, 1998, p. 22). We challenge ourselves to be the hero in someone else’s story. Are you ready to accept the challenge?
Scherer, M. (1998). Is school the place for spirituality? A conversation with Rabbi Harold Kushner. Educational Leadership, 56(4), 18–22.
Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598.
Wlodkowski, R. J. (1983). Motivational opportunities for successful teaching [Leader’s guide]. Universal Dimensions.