The pool of at-risk children in America is expanding from urban, inner cities to suburban, outlying areas. What are the challenges of teaching and working with teachers in an American landscape that is filling with sporadic safety, patchy security, and erratic stability? I can tell you first hand how with stealth these actors can insinuate themselves into the spirits of some of our smartest educational workforce because for over 15 years I served as an improvement teacher/instructional coach in Metropolitan Detroit
One day as I was making my rounds of the schools, classrooms, and teachers I served, a 10th grader approached me to inquire if I were that lady from the district office who made the lessons for the teachers to prepare them for “the test”. I replied that I was. He then pointed to a classroom that he had just exited, blurted out that the teacher in there didn’t believe in herself, so she couldn’t believe in the students. They weren’t going to pass that “damn test”. Disgusted, he wandered off. Suddenly, I felt weak, wilted. What did he mean? I was fairly acquainted with the teacher; she seemed smart and dedicated.
Steeped with concern, I entered her classroom and inquired with a smile in my voice as to how the lessons were working. She assured me that all was well and invited me to observe. Keeping a poker face and taking no notes in order to not raise her level of concern, I watched as she delivered a lesson I had designed. In time, I began to hear and see what the young student shared with me. There was a slight tentativeness in her voice and an uncertainty in her smiling face that informed, “I’m not so certain that you are capable of learning this material, and I am not so certain I am capable of teaching it so that you can.” It was subtle, almost invisible, and I’m not certain whether or not I would have recognized it had the student not shared his concern.
That day was the start an eye-opening journey of discovery: intellectual firepower, content expertise, certification, and credentials are not always enough to ensure that students master lessons that are carefully crafted. Just as a songwriter might craft a great song, it doesn’t mean he can deliver it to a paying audience. On my coaching journey, I would discover scholarly, white teachers who were uncertain of their ability to impact poor, white students who some deemed “poor, white trash”. I would coach certified, African-American teachers who were uncertain if they could elevate the skills of so many poor African-American students from so many troubled homes, and credentialed, Hispanic teachers who lacked faith in their ability to influence the future of Hispanic students. All of them lacked self-efficacy, a belief that their actions and efforts could or would make a difference.
Scent of a Teacher: The Placebo Effect
During this period, I read about single-blind studies that indicate when doctors dispense a placebo to patients, stating that taking it in the prescribed manner would make them better, some patients actually had a perceived or actual improvement in their medical condition, a phenomenon commonly known as the placebo effect.
However, some double-blind studies suggested that when doctors don’t know that they are dispensing a placebo even more patients have a perceived or actual improvement in their medical condition. Efficacy dictates that success begins with believing that success is possible.
Some sort of placebo effect was going on in the inner city schools and classrooms I was tasked with improving/supporting. Unconsciously, overwhelmed and overworked teachers were sending signals through tone of voice, facial expression, body language that perhaps their students were incapable of learning the content, and the students who needed the most support picked up on this negative energy force or “scent” like the young male student who approached me about his teacher’s lack of faith.
As CEO of the classroom community, the teacher like a doctor builds confidence in subtle, artful ways. In order to persuade students that the content is worth learning and can be learned, the teacher must be perceived by students as more than intelligent – just like a doctor trying to convince patients they can get well. Credentials and certification help provide credence that the teacher, like the doctor, is an expert in his field; however, highly effective teachers like doctors know that there is something more – an inner confidence that beams: I own my inner assets; I’ve got this. Whatever you throw at me I can handle because I am wise, brave, and strong.
Self-efficacy inspires students to BELIEVE: To believe in and feel they can learn from the teacher.
Not Just Urban Schools Anymore
In the wake of the Sandy Hook School Tragedy, “Superstorm Sandy,” the “fiscal cliff,” and other bubbles, I wonder about the invisible impact of perpetual disasters on American teachers’ psyche as they face a firestorm of never ending demands on their emotions, intellect, and spirits from their students. When teachers see only a sea of poverty seated before them in their classrooms on a daily basis, see students who have experienced or witnessed recurring tragedies, how long will it be before suburban teachers – like too many urban teachers – feel helpless, powerless, and subconsciously BELIEVE that they are incapable of delivering a more complex problem-solving, problem-seeking curriculum (Common Core) to an increasingly at-risk population?
As we move forward in reimagining the teaching profession in America, we must keep in mind that that the safety, security, stability of more of our children are dissolving like sugar in a cup of hot water, and with them a potential meltdown of the self-efficacy of more of our teachers.
What kind of disempowering “scent” will a wider swath of American teachers perspire daily that a wider swath of American students will pick up on?
Will we/Can we use our collective wisdom to provide teachers with the resilience to weather the mightiest societal storms?
Or will teaching be he next bubble?
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