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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

Does Self-Efficacy Really Matter?

By Peter DeWitt — November 08, 2016 5 min read
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It seems as though there is always something new to describe why people aren’t working, or feeling, up to par. Let’s face it, we live in a country where there is a medication for everything, along with dozens of side effects, and medications to help ease the side effects too. It’s enough to make some of us go mad.

It may seem to some like the term self-efficacy is one of those ailments that prevent us from moving forward. “Oh. I can’t possibly be a part of the group. I have a low level of self-efficacy.” Or, “My students aren’t doing well because I have a low level of self-efficacy and it gets in the way.” I can almost see the cartoon in the New Yorker now.

The reality is that self-efficacy is a real term, and it can have an impact on how we lead or teach, and how well our students learn. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has research that shows self-efficacy has an effect size of .63, which is well over the hinge point of .40 which represents a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. Hattie’s definition of self-efficacy is, “The confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves that we can make our learning happen.”

Tell me that’s not important to education.

For eleven years I taught elementary school in a few city school districts. As hard as I thought I had it as a struggling learner when I was growing up, I realized very soon into my career that many students had it much harder than me. I felt it was my job to help them change the path they may have thought was ahead of them. If I was to use Hattie’s language around Mindframes, I would say that I wanted to be a change agent, and I know there are countless teachers like me who believe they can have an enormous positive impact on student learning. Congratulations, because you have a high level of self-efficacy.

However, self-efficacy has a bit of a dark side. Ashton and Webb (1986) found that

Teachers with low teaching efficacy don't feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don't feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students."

You probably can believe that, especially if you’ve been teaching for a long time. What’s sad about this, is that Hattie’s research on teacher-student relationships shows to have an effect size of .72, which is well over the hinge point. The good news is that low self-efficacy is not a fixed mindset. All teachers, even those with a low level of self-efficacy can grow out of it.

Why Does Low Self-Efficacy Happen?
In my opinion there are many reasons why teachers and leaders suffer from a low level of self-efficacy. The first is that it may stem from personal reasons. Yes, we tell our students to leave their issues at the door when they enter into our classrooms. That’s not easy for our students and it’s not always easy for the adults in school either. Perhaps there was a relationship issue at home that didn’t work out, or that they went through a tragic event that still has a profound effect on them. Some people throw themselves into their work, while others begin retreating from it.

One other reason why teachers may have a low level of self-efficacy is that they don’t feel like they have a voice in their school community. They have to teach content that they don’t feel is age appropriate for their students, or they have to teach new standards that they don’t agree with. It may also be due to their evaluations being tied to test scores, and they constantly have that cloud over them. As important as accountability may be, too much is harmful as well, and we have seen harmful accountability over the years.

Lastly, there are times it’s due to their principal, which is why leadership is so important. In some schools, teachers have to hand in their lesson plans every three weeks or they are on the receiving end of walkthroughs that provide them with little positive feedback. Other times they are constantly being asked questions that put them on the defensive.

If we want our students to be authentically engaged in learning, we need to make sure that our teachers aren’t be forced into constant compliance by their principals.

Collaborative Leadership is Key
If we want teachers to reach their full potential where self-efficacy is concerned, then we need to find ways to help them understand that what they do has value, and that takes collaborative leadership. Kuhn found,

More productive collaborations have been identified as those in which participants directly engage one another's thinking. They listen and respond to what their peers say. In less successful collaborations, participants are more likely to work in parallel and ignore or dismiss the other person's contributions (2015)."

In order for this successful collaboration to take place, leadership has to establish a school climate where collaboration can happen. Ultimately, leaders have to understand how to first be collaborative leaders, and model what they want to happen in the school community. In a Flemish study, Runhaar (2016) found that teachers were more likely to have a high level of self-efficacy and share their knowledge when they felt supported by their school administrators, which is an important element of collaborative leadership.

In their longitudinal study involving 192 elementary schools, Hallinger and Heck found, “collaborative leadership positively impacted growth in student learning indirectly through building the academic capacity in schools (2010. p. 673). We need all teachers to help build academic capacity.

In the End
If leaders truly want to see students meet their full potential, then they need to have teachers that reach their full potential as well. Self-efficacy has been researched for decades, and just like the medications we see on television, having a low level of self-efficacy comes with side effects, and those side effects are students who don’t get a years worth of growth for a year’s input.

There are some simple steps principals can take to help raise the self-efficacy of their teachers. Some of those steps leaders can take are the following:

Find the good - Everyone has something good about them. Every teacher does something well in the classroom. Whether it be the relationships they have with students, how they read stories to them, or how creative their classroom looks. Find it and start there.

Teacher Voice - My friends Lisa Lande and Russ Quaglia have researched this area extensively. If teachers have a voice in their school community, they are less likely to feel as though they have a low level of self-efficacy.

Co-construct goals - Many teachers don’t feel that their leaders care if they have a goal. Co-construct goals with each teacher and write them down. And then check in from time to time to ask how the goal is going, and whether they need help with anything.

Collaborate - Allow and encourage teachers to collaborate. Unfortunately, teachers are asked to be a part of shared decision making when the decision was already made. Don’t do that. Give them a problem, let them solve it, and use their solution. I know it can’t happen all of the time, but maybe it can happen some of the time.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.