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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Forget Student Behavior. Let’s Talk About Teacher Credibility.

By Peter DeWitt — May 30, 2018 5 min read
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Student behavior is a popular conversation among teachers, leaders and consultants. It’s hard to teach students content when student behavior distracts us from doing our job. Some teachers will seek help to find behavioral interventions they can use in their classroom, while other teachers will create a paper trail and seek a label to allow another professional to take care of the interventions, like a school psychologist, special education teacher or behavior interventionist.

Unfortunately, as we know, when students become behavior issues in one classroom, that reputation can follow them up from grade level to grade level. As teachers write notes about each of their students at the end of the year, they are offered up to the student’s next classroom teacher. If the student has a bad reputation with one teacher, it is very possible that the bad reputation follows them. In the wake of school shootings becoming commonplace in American schools, John Hattie wrote a guest blog on the impact reputation has on how students move through life, which you can read here.

When I was a new teacher, I told each new class that came into the classroom on the first day of school that we would design our classroom rules together. I assured them that no matter the behavior they exhibited the previous year, we all started on a clean slate. Back then it was popular to use behavior charts, and I even added my name to the behavior chart and would give myself a yellow card if needed. After all, we all need a tune-up for our behavior from time to time, and I wanted them to know that I had expectations for myself as well as them.

I enjoyed tossing out the behavior chart after a few years...

As a newer teacher, I even went so far as to ignore reading the student files that were written by their previous teacher. Why? Because even if there were students in my first grade classroom who had behavior problems the previous year, it didn’t mean those same behavior problems would be exhibited with me in our classroom. I wanted to get to know the students before I read someone else’s judgement.

Hattie, Fisher and Frey (p. 13) have written, “Unfortunately, in some cases, specific students are targeted for behavioral correction while other students engaged in the same behavior are not noticed.” As a student I experienced this with my teachers, so I certainly didn’t want to contribute to it as a teacher.

When the Tables Are Turned On Us
As teachers, our behavior follows us as well. We often think that we are in control of that clean slate that I mentioned earlier, but truth be told, our reputations can be as harmful for us as teachers, and they are for our students. It’s all adds or detracts from our teacher credibility.

And that has an enormous impact on student learning. Much more than student behavior.

Teacher credibility is defined as how credible our students think we are as teachers. Russ Quaglia, in his vast research on student voice, has found that when students like us, they will work very hard for us. If students do not like us...well, they may work very hard to tweak us in the classroom.

And Malcolm Gladwell taught us that students size us up within the first 10 seconds they are sitting in our classroom. What we do after that 10 seconds either helps us or hurts us in the eyes of the students. And all of this leads us back to the original thought on how our behavior, as teachers, follows us.

As much as we talk about clean slates at the beginning of the school year for our students, the truth is, many of the students sitting in our classrooms on that first day saw how we treated our students the previous year.

  • Did we yell at students in the cafeteria, or on the playground?
  • Did they have a class next to us last year and heard us screaming through the walls? Did their older sibling, cousin or friend have us as a teacher?
  • What stories did our former students tell about us?

Research Shows...
John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has compiled research from developed countries from around the world involving over 300 million students. His research includes looking at different influences on learning (i.e. feedback, collective teacher efficacy, instructional leadership, etc.) through a meta-analysis approach. Meta-analysis, as we know, are large studies that include much smaller individual studies.

The strength of Hattie’s meta-analysis approach is that it allows Hattie, and others who use his research like me, to look for common themes among all of those smaller individual studies. Those influences on learning are accompanied by an effect size in the individual studies, and an average effect size in the meta-analysis. Overall, teacher credibility has an average effect size of .90, which is more than double the .40 effect size that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

Our credibility has an enormous impact on how well students learn. Students find us credible when:

  • We offer up opportunities for students voice through debates, a voice in classroom decisions
  • They can disagree with our opinion and teach us at the same time
  • Understand our content and how to deliver it as well
  • We treat students as humans and not small machines that consume our information
  • We stop doing all of the talking and offer opportunities for them to ask their own questions as much as they have to answer our questions.

In the End
As adults, we focus a lot on student behavior. But what about our own? Students come into our classes and we either tell them they have a clean slate or we have a bias against them based on their behavior from the year before when they had another teacher.

As we close out another school year; one that involves more horrific events than we care to count, how will we move forward? How will we take into account those things we don’t control, and start to focus on those things we do control, like how students see us?

Do we care about our credibility as a teacher as much as we care about their reputation as a student?

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). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.