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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

10 Seconds: The Time It Takes a Student to Size You Up

By Peter DeWitt — January 01, 2015 4 min read
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10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5...you get the idea. We count back from 10 all the time. We did it when playing Hide-and-Seek as kids, and other times we do it when we want to get the attention of our audience. With the New Year chiming in last night, people from around the world counted down from 10 to mark the new year. But did you know that our students can size us up in 10 seconds?

10 seconds can be very powerful.

In Blink (2005) Malcolm Gladwell wrote about psychologist Nalina Ambady. Gladwell wrote that Ambady, “Once gave students three ten-second videotapes of a teacher - with the sound turned off - and found they had no difficulty at all coming up with a rating of the teacher’s effectiveness.” As if that wasn’t telling enough, Ambady “cut clips back to five seconds, and the ratings were the same.”

We all make snap judgments within a matter of seconds, so some of this may not be a surprise. We judge people based on how they look, which is why fashion magazines and shallow entertainment newspapers sell so well. Whether people admit it or not, they judge others every day, and then move on about their business.

What makes Ambady’s research even more interesting is that she compared those snap judgments with real data. Gladwell wrote that, “Ambady compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations of those same professors made by their students after a full semester of classes, and she found they were also essentially the same.”

So...not only did people make judgments based on 10 seconds of video focusing on teachers they have never met in person...they were actually aligned to the students who spent months with those very same teachers.

What Does It Means for Educators?

We clearly can’t do much about students watching a 10-second video and making judgments to a researcher, but we certainly have control over the kind of judgments students sitting in our class make...and we do that one conversation at a time. It’s even more complicated these days.

Social networking makes those first impressions even more difficult. Let’s face it, we all have “friends” who air their dirty laundry on their Facebook page and then use freedom of speech and privacy as the support they need when they backtrack away from the statements they posted. Heck, we even make judgments about “friends” we haven’t met in person whom we “know” on Facebook or Twitter based on what they say and the pictures they post.

Before we scream “Foul” though we need to remember that teachers have been talking about “tough” students for decades and can be a major part of the reason why certain students end up with reputations that are less then kind. Blinking goes both ways.

I digress...let’s get back to the original point.

Students may not tell you they do not like you, but they are certainly telling their parents or friends. If teachers have students for any long period of time it’s important that they try to connect with their students in as many ways as possible. Russ Quaglia, who has been an advocate for student voice for close to 30 years believes the best way to connect with students is by authentically encouraging them to use their voice.

Building relationships with students is an integral part of student voice, because it can give us a second chance at that first impression with those students who don’t know they have a voice, but can size their teachers up without using any words.

Quaglia and his group at the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspiration (QISA) for which I am a member, have a pretty easy test that teachers can take in Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (Quaglia & Corso, 2014). Quaglia & Corso wrote, “Use the best practices for supporting student voice below to rate yourself on a scale of 0 - 10, where 0 is never and 10 is always.

  • I regularly ask students for classroom feedback.
  • I co-teach with students.
  • I learn from my students.
  • I use student input to improve my teaching.
  • I invite students to department, committee, and grade-level meetings.
  • Students are educational partners in my class. Students help develop classroom rules.
  • Students are responsible for assessing parts of their schoolwork.”

Where do you rate? Is it possible that your students can make a pretty accurate judgment in 10 seconds?

The 10-second rule has implications for everyone in education. It doesn’t matter if we are referring to teachers, principals, superintendents or educational consultants. When we walk into a room with a group of people, they size us up in 10-seconds, and that can be pretty intimidating to think about before we enter the room. However, it helps us understand how important our actions are when we are with the group. What we do after we walk into the room matters.

In the End

It’s pretty intimidating to think that every year we walk in front of a group of students and they make a split decision about us within 10 seconds. For those educators who walk in front of groups all the time, it can be even more intimidating to think of how easily we are judged...sometimes before we even say a word.

However, what we do with that information is very important. We don’t simply capture the attention of our audience because we have a glowing resume, just like teachers don’t always capture the attention of all of their students because they happen to have a great reputation on Facebook or Twitter. Not everyone loves us even if we have a good reputation, so we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.

Every time we engage with our students and parents matters because they are making judgments about us that may be untrue, and we should understand that we too are making decisions about all of them...within a blink of an eye.

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Creative Commons picture courtesy of Earls37a.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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