George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

In 1968, two researchers conducted a fascinating study that proved the extent to which teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. In educational circles, this has been termed the Pygmalion Effect, or more colloquially, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What has always intrigued me about this study is specifically what the teachers did to communicate that they believed a certain set of students had "unusual potential for academic growth." The research isn't overly explicit about this, but it indicates that the teachers "may have paid closer attention to the students, and treated them differently in times of difficulty." This raises the following questions:

  • Why can't teachers treat all of their students like this?
  • How do we communicate to students whether we believe in them or not?

Excellence, Celebration, and Success

Based on my experience coaching AVID schools around the country, there are ways that I've seen teachers communicate to all of their students that they have high expectations. Here are a few practical tips that you can borrow from them:

Be Excellent in All Ways

Everything speaks. We can't expect students to be excellent if we don't model that for them in every element of our classroom. I may not be able to infuse excellence into every classroom and hallway of my school or in every interaction that students have outside of school, so I must leverage and maximize every element that I do control. Too often, I walk into a classroom and know immediately if it's an honors class, just by how attractive the walls are or how organized the books on the shelves are. Every student deserves a clean, organized classroom. Every student deserves a structured and engaging learning environment. Every student deserves lessons that are well thought-out and delivered every day. Excellence is a habit that is cultivated. When we model this every day, we communicate to students that excellence is the expectation.

Celebrate Small Victories

Say, "I'm proud of you" -- and say it often. The day that I opened my college acceptance letter was the only time that I ever remember my dad saying, "I'm proud of you." It was so impactful and memorable for me that I tried to say that phrase to students every chance I got. Passed a test? "I'm proud of you." Got to class on time? "I'm proud of you." It's a low-cost investment with the potential for life-altering rewards. I love hearing teachers say, "Great job" or "You did it!" It's positive reinforcement at its finest.

Make Failure Unacceptable

The single most impactful way that we can communicate our beliefs to students may be how we react when they fail an assignment, test, or grading period. Rather than ignoring the situation or moving students to a different class, we must communicate this:

My job as your teacher was for you to learn this material, so let's figure out how to make that happen. If you're not learning the way that I teach, maybe I need to teach the way that you learn. Is this a cognition issue? Then let's get you to tutoring. Is it a learning strategies issue? Then let's talk about other ways to study, learn, and organize your thinking. Is this a motivation issue? Then let's talk about the short- and long-term repercussions of failing.

Failure cannot be the path of least resistance in our classes. Rather, we must do everything that we can to make failure unacceptable and difficult. When we accept students' failure, we give them permission to accept it as well. However, when we show that nothing they can do will ever make us give up on them, we give them permission to start believing in themselves.

Raise the Bar Right Now

In AVID schools, we espouse a philosophy that encompasses the items above, called "Rigor with Support." It's the idea that we believe every student can and should be prepared for college and career readiness, and that we will keep the expectations high, but also offer the support to help students get there.

So here are my challenges to you:

  • Look around your classroom or at your lesson plan for tomorrow. What is one component that you can make more excellent?
  • Find one thing to celebrate tomorrow, and look one student directly in the eye and tell him or her, "I'm proud of you."
  • Think of one student who has failed an assignment or grading period recently, make time to meet with him or her individually, and figure out a plan to not let it happen again.

I'd be very interested to hear how your results looked and felt. Please share them in the comments below.

Was this useful? (15)

Comments (24) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (24) Sign in or register to comment

Sue Long's picture

Theresa D.: What is unfortunate for teachers is that many times we really do not see the finished product. This can leave us frustrated. I go back to the days when I was teaching English in a small, rural community. Adam hated me. He fought me on every front that he could. He bad-mouthed me to everyone, students as well as teachers. What I was asking from him was "stupid!" "It's my right to fail if I want to." "You can't make me redo the assignment (or test or essay - whatever it was on that particular day)." Adam eventually made it to the senior teacher and graduated.

I left the next year to become a principal. The "other" English teacher contacted me to let me know that Adam had returned and was looking for me. Assuming the worst, she asked what was going on. Adam had come back to thank me. He informed the teacher that he had hated me while he was in school - a fact that few people missed. Now that he was graduated and had landed his first job, he wanted to let me know how very wrong he was. He told the teacher, "She didn't give up on me even when I treated her so badly. And everything she 'made' me learn is what got me my job. My boss told me I needed to thank her for everything she did for me."

The "other" teacher said he looked like he would cry when she told him I was no longer in the school district, but promised to let me know that he had "come looking for me!" We need these stories when we are at our lowest.

Don't give up on what you are doing. You may impact only one of those students, but that is one life for whom you made a difference. What more can you ask for?

Hang in there! Believe in yourself. There's one of those kids, who at the present time will never admit to it, that you are making a difference for. You CAN and WILL do it.

Sue Long's picture

Louise Lipert Maery: Smart Board? Projector? Thank God you know how to be creative!

One of my proudest moments in teaching came when I had 12 of my students on an educational program in D.C. We were meeting with our representative, who in his own way, was trying to get the students to tell him what kind of appropriations needed to be made for education; he explained, "You know, computers, video equipment (this was before the days of high tech), books. . . "

The students looked a little confused until one stated, "Give us more teachers like Mrs. Long!" Another quipped, "She'll take us out underneath a tree, draw in the dirt with a stick, and insist we learn." "When someone hid the novel we were supposed to read, she simply told us, 'I said we were going to start Huck Finn today and we will,' and read to us until the books were located." Most of the other students chimed in with similar comments.

The rep, laughing, stated "Well, I know a few students who are going to get A's!" To which one student replied, "Nope! She teaches freshmen and sophomores. We're all juniors and seniors! And I was ecstatic with my B!"

Let the kids help you come up with things. While I was a principal at an at-risk school, one of our students created a Smart Board for us using a discarded Wii controller! (This was about the only way we were able to get him to pass physics - and he could explain exactly what he did and why it worked!!!)
Good luck with your students. Have fun!

donofrio4's picture

Do not commit the error, common among the young, of assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind you have failed. ~Jan de Hartog, The Lamb's War

From this, we can conclude that teachers must be perpetually young. We want every single one of our students to excel, and if we have even one who is not "getting it", we search every nook and cranny of ourselves to blame. What could we have done differently or better to have helped this student? If only we tried a different approach. If only we were better prepared, more engaging, more supportive, more clear, more patient, more organized. If only we were more "something" ALL our kids would succeed. It's good for us to be optimistic and work for the best for ALL our students, but I struggle with the concept of putting the entire burden on the teacher. Sometimes, despite our very, very best efforts, kids remain beyond our reach. I think of Jesus, the Teacher; even He could not get all 12 of his students to behave appropriately at all times.

Duane Fitzhugh's picture

I do wish educators especially would learn the difference between "begs the question" and "raises the question." The correct choice here is "raise." To "beg the question" means to assume that the point you are arguing is already true, a major logical reasoning flaw.

Edward Kirkbride's picture

I understand you approach to make 'failure unacceptable' and your reasoning...BUT...making discussing and dealing with failure a positive springboard for education and growth prepares the CHILD for dealing with FAILURE as a part of life and the future..... Mr. Ed

JohnK Wright V's picture
JohnK Wright V
Certified Math Teacher 8-12 and Technology Applications EC-12, Plano,TX

I love this article. I try to use this in my classrooms over the years. I have always worked with the non-honors, ap or avid kids. I had kids who were struggling, not up to grade level, etc. One year I was given a 7th grader in my class of 30 students. I was told that she was at MR level and not to expect much from her. I set the bar high for her just like everyone else. Guess who got the highest grade in the class on my Final? She did. I refused to accept what expectations put on others. I just had to change the way I taught the material to her. Lots of tutoring. She had accommodations like using a calculator. I reduced number of answer choices and questions. Many years ago in the Army, I became a Company Commander of a unit that had low morale, did not believe in themselves, etc. 18 months later, I had the top NCO AND the top enlisted soldier on the base in my 110 person Company. Refuse to accept low expectations. Challenge your students and try to set the bar. Yes, you do have to think differently out of the box. Students and people do think differently.

Juliet18's picture
Middle grades LA, SS from Southeast USA

I completely agree with you! Definitely is aligned to the results Jaime Escalante got with his AP Calculus class in East LA in the 80's. I've always specifically asked for the "lowest performing" students because I tell them they have the best teacher in the system and thus will make the highest scores in the system. Our honors teacher is amazing and we collaborate a lot together to combine our classes for activities. My kids are so thrilled to be working alongside the "honors kids" that they double their efforts, and the honors kids always learn something from my kids, too. Year after year, the results have proven positive and my students make tremendous gains.

HOWEVER...... your statement "Every student deserves lessons that are well thought-out and delivered every day." is the key to all this success and is becoming practically impossible to maintain with the ODAR - "Other Duties And Responsibilities" given to teachers. I spend about 70 - 80 % of my time in redundant meetings, workshops, filing reports, completing double and triple documentation and very little on lesson reflection and preparation. I'm an awesome teacher, but even I an be overwhelmed, and I've noticed the quality of my instruction has suffered, too. I can't put in more than the 60 hours a week I already do (and additional 40 lbs of stress related weight) or I am going to have a heart attack in class.


Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi, Juliet18! I love what you are doing for your students -- your high expectations and collaboration with the honors teacher are obviously having a huge impact on your students. But I am right there with you, working far more hours than we should, knowing that to do our best for our students, we need more time for lesson prep/reflection and fewer "other duties." It really can feel like an impossible situation... yet here we are, on our winter break, still looking for ways to improve our teaching and do better for our students. As much as we hate to do less than our best, we have to let go of some of it if we want to be the best we can for our students. Some days the lessons might not be as carefully designed as others, yet we might be better equipped to work with our students that day because we took the time to take a walk after dinner or go to the gym or walk the dog or soak in a bubble bath. We know that if we don't take care of ourselves (physical, emotional, mental health), our teaching (and students) will suffer. While it may seem obvious that we need to take care of ourselves, I think we all know how hard it is to actually do it. When I am faced with a lot of grading to do, I have to decide how much time I will devote to it, and then stick to that time limit. Otherwise I could work all weekend long and resent that lost time. If I don't get all the grading done, I have to be OK with it waiting for another day. Our work load is enormous... unfortunately that hasn't changed in my 25 years of teaching... so we have to figure out how to let go of some of it so we can stay healthy and strong for our students. I wish I had better suggestions for you, but this is how I've dealt with it in my career. Hang in there -- you are a great teacher -- and your kids need you at your best!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal


I am so with you on this one. I have been struggling with this very issue- all too often sacrificing my own personal time for my work. I seem to have so little time for actual planning and prep these days. Laura Bradley gave some great advice we both could put to use. We have to let things go. We can't do it all and have to prioritize our time and efforts on what matters most. It is not sustainable. It isn't healthy for us, or helpful to our students, if we burn out or something even worse happens. I recently listed the tasks I NEED to be spending time on- the planning/prep/personal contacts with parents. Then I set a schedule for the exact day/time I would spent on those most important items. Now I just need to try and stick to my plan.

A second thing I did was reach out to some colleagues (and administrator) and let them know I am overwhelmed. I not only found out many others were in the same boat. We now have a dialogue about how we need to prioritize as well as focus on our own personal time and wellness. I also reached out to a few who seem to have figured out how to manage the work load a bit better than I and picked their brain on ways to improve my situation.

Something I did over the last 3 years is work to help lead the school into using online communication to handle many nuts and bolts type issues so they don't take up staff meeting time. I also encouraged others to do the same by laying the issue on the table and talking about how much more efficient we could be if we did some virtual communication. We have had great success in starting discussions in an email group, moving it to a Google Doc with everyone involved putting their initials in parenthesis next to comments they make, then eventually finalizing the project/issue in a face to face meeting.

The last thing I have done is to try and stay out of the office and teachers lounge as much as possible- I find my time gets eaten up quickly in those places- especially when I'm stressed and overloaded.

Good Luck and be sure to take care of yourself and give yourself the right to take time or even days off entirely. My wife would say I need to practice what I preach here. ;)

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.