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Turning Your Classroom into a Chrysalis

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

There is a dirty little lie that teachers tell and it is a complicated one.

“I don’t play favorites in my classroom. All of my students are important to me and I try to be fair with all of them.”

When I was a principal and school administrator, students would come into my office to complain about a teacher and would invariably bring one of their friends to “bear witness” to what was being said. The student complaining would often either use coding to express their feelings or use much more straightforward and simple language: The teacher just doesn’t like me. The accompanying friend was there to validate the sentiment because they intuitively knew what was coming from me next. My job was to perpetuate the dirty little lie mentioned above. 

“I know it can feel that way but your teacher is not in the business of liking you or not liking you. Just because they may become frustrated at times does not mean that they don’t like you.” The student would nod back at me, basically saying, “yeah, I understand what you're saying, but this teacher just doesn’t like me.”

This lie that teachers tell is complicated because it speaks to what makes teaching an almost impossible profession. How do I instruct, create learning experiences, assess, and evaluate student growth accurately while remaining a human being that is going to react, like a million times a day, to all of the social and emotional stimuli constantly surrounding me?

The student would nod back at me, basically saying, “yeah, I understand what you're saying, but this teacher just doesn’t like me.”

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, in their now classic study Pygmalion in the Classroom attempt to answer this specific question by doing long term studies of a school with high student diversity. The simple way of understanding their work is to say that what a teacher thinks and believes a student to be is precisely what they will become. In other words, teachers are not just responsible for student learning, but student blooming as well. “One person’s (teacher’s) expectations of another’s behavior (student’s) may come to serve as a self fulfilling prophecy.”* (See source below) Their work attempts to break down the simple minded and easily reinforced assertion that students are in a bubble of biological development and the reason they will or will not learn has mostly to do with genetic influences, not environment.

Their study examined and broke down the demographics of the student population not only by income, race, age, and academic placement, but also importantly by gender.  It was also not surprising that children in the younger grades were much more likely to be impacted by teacher attitudes toward them than older students. The possible reason for this were:

  1. Younger children are just easier to change. Perhaps both from a cognitive and a psychological perspective they are more open in regards to outside influences.

  2. Older children already have a reputation. As students move through school systems, so do developed attitudes towards them based on prior experience.

  3. They are believed to be more malleable, not necessarily because they are, but because we would like to believe they are. The reverse can be said for older children. We begin to believe, at some point, that this version of a child is just who they are. Are we therefore more or less likely to express the positive impressions we might witness based on our perceptions of human development?

  4. Younger children are just more impacted and sensitive to the world of adults. One could imagine then that older children begin to turn their emotional attentions away from adults and perhaps toward their peers for validation. “ is only the younger children whose performance is affected by the special things the teacher says to them, the special ways in which she says them, the way she looks, postures, and touches the children from whom she expects greater intellectual growth.” 

We begin to believe, at some point, that this version of a child is just who they are.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the study, that seemed to correlate between teacher attitude and student growth, was whether the teacher perceived of a student as being “interesting”. There was an appeal or way in which students drew teachers to them which had a significant impact. This point validates for me that the subjective nature of our field is relentless and in constant need of teacher and school awareness. One teacher’s “interesting” could be another teacher’s “boring”. How do we possibly help teachers navigate all of the explicit and implicit biases we throw at our students all day long in order so that everyone can feel that they have something of interest to offer? 

Another remarkably terrifying result was that lower tracked students, who showed significant gain academically over the course of the year, were also evaluated more unfavorably than students who showed moderate or expected levels of academic progress. It seemed that a type of distrust of these lower level students’ growth extended into an overall psychological and learning profile of the child.

Regarding the gender findings of teacher influence, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that girls bloomed more in the reasoning sphere and boys more in reading when their teachers viewed them as capable and in generally a positive light. This finding put another dagger into the argument that these skills are somehow biologically innate to one gender or another. Positive teacher expectations of students, when viewed through a genderless lens, produced academic growth for students in typically gender assigned areas of learning. 

This point validates for me that the subjective nature of our field is relentless and in constant need of teacher and school awareness. One teacher’s “interesting” could be another teacher’s “boring”.

The follow up to these students also indicated that the positive attitudes and expectations of students stuck with the girls years beyond the study where with the boys, it did not. Are boys therefore more insecure about their learning and need more regular reinforcement?  Are girls more capable of believing and maintaining positive external expectations and holding onto them? Or both? Or perhaps boys are more readily judged as not capable, willing, or interested in school and, in the aggregate, more likely to listen to and assimilate negative understandings of themselves as learners. This self-fulfilling prophecy would have more impact year after year than the one-off experience of the researchers’ constructed experiment and findings.

As an educator, the overall takeaways of this classic study are simple: what positive piece of encouragement can I give to each one of my students every day? If I see my classroom as a place not just of educating but as a place of blooming, as not just a place of growth but as a place of emerging, every student needs to feel that there is something interesting about them (which there always is) and free from the implicit biases with which we as adults constantly struggle.

*Rosenthal, R. and Jacobson L. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupils’ Intellectual Development. Williston, VT. Crown House Publishing, 1968, 1992.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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