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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

7 Ways Our Students Are Judged Too Harshly

By Peter DeWitt — October 07, 2019 5 min read
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In a previous blog, I wrote about how we judge others, and ourselves, too quickly in education (read the blog post here). As I was writing the blog, I had a nagging feeling that there was more to explore on the topic of judgment, especially where biases are concerned. That nagging feeling was when I realized the blog only focused on adults.

As much as I have patience with adults learning not to judge each other and themselves, I lack the same level of patience when it comes to judging students. Judging students happens all the time. Many teachers and leaders often meet students where they believe the students are (i.e., academics, social-emotional learning, etc.), instead of where the students might actually be in those areas.

Why does this matter? It’s sad if that’s a thought, but let’s explore that a bit. Let’s ... unpack that idea.

The reality is that when we place students in a judgmental box, it prevents them from achieving to the level they’re capable of, and it also may create a feeling of alienation in those students. Odetola et al. (1972) found that there are two types of alienation that students feel within our schools, which are identification and powerlessness. Identification is defined as “the student’s sense of belonging to his school” (p. 19). Powerlessness is defined as a “student’s feeling of incapacity to affect the direction of his learning” (p. 20).

Our job as educators is to help students learn to reach their full potential by providing them with opportunities to learn and self-reflect, all at the same time they are surrounded by caring adults. Our job as educators is not to have students dislike us when they leave, reach their full potential after, and believe that we didn’t care about them.

Just like in the post about adults and judgment, there are 7 ways that adults judge students. However, these are much more destructive and need an immediate end. If you are reading this and completely disagree with me, perhaps it’s because you have a bias that you are not aware of or do not understand exists. Take the time to watch this great series created by the NY Times with more assistance in that area.

Survey Says!
The list of 7 are below. As with any of my lists, please feel free to add your own if you feel one is missing.

Zip Code - I grew up in West Glens Falls, NY. I was often called a “West Ender,” which meant people felt I came from the poorer side of town. It was more lower to middle class, but I definitely felt the judgment when I was young. Many children growing up in housing projects, apartment complexes, and parts of town where houses are not as expensive as houses in other parts of the town feel (and get) judged all the time. This is not necessarily about poverty, as much as it’s about the perception of the “Have’s and Have Not’s.”

Gender - There have been a plethora of studies to show that girls are often judged differently from boys (Read this Time article on the topic here). Although many studies show that girls outperform boys, teacher bias is often the opposite.

Skin Color - Sometimes students are judged based on the color of their skin. We need not look too far to see we have a race issue in the United States. African Americans are disproportionately disciplined over their white peers (Read here for more information), and they are often called on less often in class because the teacher believes they cannot answer more difficult questions, which is a judgment that needs to end immediately. Not only is it not true, it also creates situations where students cannot reach their full potential.

Poverty - Students who grow up in poverty are judged because ... they are growing up in poverty (read the Center for American Progress report here). In workshops, I have heard (and corrected when they say) teachers and leaders say that children in poverty cannot achieve as much as their wealthier peers. Not true. We need to turn this judgmental thought around. In fact, Tschannen-Moran & Barr (2004, p. 190) found that, “Collective teacher efficacy refers to the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.”

Last Name - We live in very complicated times. Having nephews who have Muslim last names because my brother-in-law is from Beirut and great-nephews and a niece who are biracial and have Kenyan last names, I worry about this one on the list. The truth is teachers and leaders can be very judgmental of students because those students have last names that seem “different.” I’m sorry if some names are hard to pronounce, but try harder and ask for clarification.

Their Parents - Speaking of last names. ... Let’s face it, we all do it. We look on the class list or the incoming kindergarten, junior high, or freshman class list and see the last name of a student, and we didn’t realize those parents had yet one more child. Perhaps the parents were hovering for their other children, had an issue with one of our previous school rules, or they just have a reputation for being a snowplow parent. Let’s try not to judge children based on our perception of their parents, and maybe it’s time to drop that perception of the parent.

Special Education Label - John Hattie, someone I work with, has influences on learning which all happen to be accompanied by an effect size. We know that a .40 effect size equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. In Hattie’s list of over 251 influences on learning, one of the most profound is “not labeling students” (.61). The reasoning is that there are times when a student gets a label they need, but it creates a glass ceiling for them because their teacher or a leader doesn’t think the student can achieve greater because they have a label. The adults around them lower their expectations of the students (Read this Hechinger Report on the issue). Special education has many nuances, many which involve making sure that we have the correct expectations for the particular students with a label. It doesn’t mean we need to lower our expectations of the student just because of the label.

In the End
Judgment happens. We all have deeply engrained biases that have happened for a number of reasons. Just watch those NY Times videos to get a sense of where some biases come from. However, what we have to learn to do is check our judgments at the door, because they are preventing students from reaching their full potential and preventing us as adults from reaching our full potential, too.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory. Connect with him on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Getting Images.

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.