Research shows that students develop a greater self-concept when their teachers have high expectations for them, show great leadership, and are helpful and understanding (Alsop, 2005). Equally influential, when teachers do not use an equity lens when implementing research-based teaching practices and beliefs that reflect opportunity for all students, low expectations may be internalized by students, resulting in their disengagement (Cavazos, 2009).
Alyssa Cavazos recounts her struggles as an English language learner as she “encountered teachers in middle and high school who conveyed their low expectations regarding [her] potential as a student” (2009).
She explains the deeper constructs that create a deficit educational context that results in differential expectations: “Unfortunately, many times, programs such as cooperative education and early college recruitment are jaded and biased based on what one faculty or staff member believes about certain students’ academic potential” (2009).
This demonstrates how well-meaning teachers can inadvertently discriminate against students who do not fit within the constructs of a westernized, White, middle-class setting. It is the majority of marginalized students who may perceive these actions from their teachers as a form of discrimination, lack of concern or being singled out, which ultimately pushes them into a direction of mistrust, anger and disassociation from schooling (Langhout & Mitchell, 2008; Cheung, 2009).
The call for the educational setting to transform into a more culturally responsive environment has been slow to surface. However, we can no longer ignore children from diverse backgrounds who are more likely to experience negative interactions in school because it jeopardizes their opportunities to develop social and academic efficacy (Reyes, 2006). It is time for a paradigm shift to provide multiple supports from which to empower diverse populations of students within the educational system.
Educators have a very special and critical place in our society. We are key shapers of the future of our community, of our society, and of our economic stability and advancement. Of all the multiple roles in education, teachers are the most influential in terms of student success (Dinham, 2007).
If you take a moment to think about your own educational past, from the very first memory of school, to your experiences and interactions with peers and adults that have resulted in who you are today, what comes to mind? If given the task, could you pinpoint your “best” and “worst” teachers? What characteristics did each of them have that classified them as “best” or “worst”? What would these teachers remember about you? Were you “one of the good students,” or were you “one of those students” who were often left out during instruction in some form or another?
If you were one of the “good” students, you were probably considered smart, athletic, attentive, determined, GT or sweet. This type of labeled disposition lends itself to becoming the teacher’s favorite student, who then receives preferential treatment and opportunities.
But, a significant population of our traditionally underrepresented youth enrolled in public schools is swept into the category of “those” children who struggle, don’t understand the language, aren’t motivated, can’t sit still, are disruptive, or whose parents don’t care. Additionally, marginalized children experience further exclusionary labeling when they are pregnant, poor, minority, ESL, thought to be in a gang, or are skaters, freaks or thugs.
These labels influence teacher perceptions, whether consciously or subconsciously (Reyes, 2006), thus influencing the responses and interactions of teachers with students. As a result, students further disengage. And these behaviors can be seen as early as the elementary years with even greater distancing occurring at the secondary level (Sullivan, Riccio & Reynolds, 2008).
Unfortunately, responses to student disengagement exacerbate a culture of blame directed at the individual student (Langhout & Mitchell, 2008; Robledo Montecel, 2000), rather than recognizing the deficit that privileges select groups and marginalizes or excludes others, especially those of racial and culturally diverse backgrounds (Weinstein, Curran & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2003). When teachers are compelled to enforce behavioral expectations from a culturally monochromatic lens, there is little or no consideration for students’ experiences, cultural perspectives or identity of self.
The call to action begins with challenging every educator, regardless of leadership level, to take a reflective look at his or her own beliefs about particular individual students as well as structurally labeled groups and populations of students. Ask yourself whether or not you truly believe that equitable educational opportunities exist for every child. If not, what would it take to refine and reconnect with each student in positive, supportive and meaningful ways?
To be accepting of racial and economic diversity is not enough. Educators must:
Take emotional risks that challenge beliefs about perceived student abilities;
Establish two-way positive communication with students so they have voice and purpose in learning through lenses of diversity;
Be conscious of the various discourse styles and communication within represented cultures;
Develop an awareness, appreciation and acceptance of different cultural behaviors outside your own;
Embrace the multiplicities of students’ ideals, values and experiences; and
Engage families in the decision-making process of the classroom and the school.
Equitable access for all children will continue to be a distant dream when marginalization is fueled by the silent constructs, such as the normative foundation of a White, middle-class culture of learning within the educational system. Teachers’ negative perceptions, exacerbated by these silent constructs, influence the identities and values that children develop from their educational experiences. As long as the educational setting continues to mirror these current embedded values, educators will continue to compare and categorize children into “the good” or one of “those” students.
Embracing diversity as a foundation for self-efficacy and leadership will drive changes that result in equity for all children. It will push educators to re-examine the deficit connotations that linger in the educational context, thus striving for a shift in capitalizing on the strengths of teacher practice and sharing in the teaching and learning processes. It requires that we become cognizant of our preconceived negative notions of students’ capacity and tap the potential of every child.
Now is the time to examine the current belief system that is exclusionary of the majority population of diverse learners (NCES, 2009) and take immediate action to rectify it. When the teacher consciously begins this transformative process, mountains can be moved and new pathways can be created for all students.
Alsop, S. Beyond the Cartesian Dualism: Encountering Affect in the Teaching and Learning of Science (The Netherlands: Springer Publications, 2005).
Cavazos, A.G. “Reflections of a Latina Student-Teacher: Refusing Low Expectations for Latina/o Students,” American Secondary Education (2009) 37(3), 70-79.
Cheung, R. “Tension Between Students and Teachers in Urban High Schools,” Kappan (2009) 91(3), 53-56.
Dinham, S. “How Schools Get Moving and Keep Improving: Leadership for Teacher Learning, Student Success and School Renewal,” Australian Journal of Education (2007) 5(3), 263-275.
Langhout, R.D., and Mitchell, C.A. “Engaging Contexts: Drawing the Link Between Student and Teacher Experiences of the Hidden Curriculum,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology (2008). 18, 593-614.
National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education: Participation in Education (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2009).
Reyes III, R. “Cholo to ‘Me’: From Peripherality to Practicing Student Success for a Chicano Former Gang Member,” The Urban Review (2006) 38(2), 165-186.
Robledo Montecel, M. “Musical Chairs and Unkept Promises,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2000).
Sullivan, J.R., and C.A. Riccio, C.R. Reynolds. “Variations in Students’ School- and Teacher-Related Attitudes Across Gender, Ethnicity, and Age,” Journal of Instructional Psychology (2008) 35(3), 296-305.
Weinstein, C., and M. Curran, S. Tomlinson-Clarke. “Culturally Responsive Classroom Management: Awareness into Action,” Theory into Practice (2003) 42(4), 269-276.
Veronica Betancourt, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]