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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

When That Last Name Appears on Our Class List

By Peter DeWitt — October 27, 2016 5 min read
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“Our unwillingness to engage young people in trouble is an indictment on us, not them.” Christopher Emdin

Luce. There’s a name that makes me cringe. We knew him before he entered into the kindergarten classroom because he had the same last name as his brother, who made our lives miserable. His brother used bad language like it was his job. The F-bomb came out like it was a regular part of his vocabulary...which it was. They shouldn’t be here. They should be in an alternative school.

Day. We know her father. After all, he was our student when he was a kid. I remember her grandfather because I went to school with him. Oh, it’s just sad what happens in that family. Well, I will just document everything she can’t do when she starts school and then hopefully I can get her services.

Dawkins. Did you hear about him? Apparently he thinks he’s more of a girl than a boy. His mom is bothering the principal to get us to address him by his preferred female name. Give me a break. That mother is going to be in here all year long breathing down my neck. I can’t wait until she’s gone.

Meade. She is such a sweet girl. She helped me with everything in the classroom last year. She handed out papers, I could put her with other students to help them, and her parents were so nice to talk to. Sometimes our parent conferences were like 10 minutes because they were so happy with everything going on in the classroom.

And we say our students need to have a growth mindset?

Don’t Blink Too Long
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes that our students can size us up in about 10 seconds after they walk into our classrooms. “That’s not fair,” we say. “It’s based on what they hear on the baseball field,” we say. “Parents need to give us the benefit of the doubt after they hear what they hear about us,” we say.

It doesn’t matter whether we are staff, teachers or principals, we want students and parents to give us a fair shot, but we’re not always providing them with one. There are many reasons why this happens. Perhaps we heard about a tough situation involving them, or their previous teacher glowed about them in the faculty room. Other times it’s simply because they have the wrong last name, and instead of giving them a shot, we throw them into the category of a forgone conclusion.

Sadly, sometimes these experiences are not based on actual evidence from the year before but based on when they enter our classroom. Let’s face it, we don’t always like to see those kids come in on the 1st or the 15th of the month. How long will they stay? Are we really supposed to get the next one? I thought it was that teacher’s turn?

Whether we like it or not we have a bias against them when they enter our classroom, and it may be based on a previous teacher’s story, seeing them in the principal’s office the year before, the date they enter into our classrooms (and with what supplies they don’t bring), and what their last name happens to be. We all have heard last names that make us cringe.

Very often we wonder why students are engaged with us, but it may be due to the idea that they can feel our bias. We often tell students they have to change their mindsets or take more control over their own learning, but we don’t often provide them with the opportunity to do that. It’s the way we talk with them, or the level of question we ask them in front of their peers. They know how the adults around them talk about them, and their families certainly know how the school talks about them. We don’t treat them with equality as much as we treat them with sympathy for their situations, and when we do that, it just helps further the gap between them and us.

What About Teddy?
Anyone who has been teaching for about 10 years remembers the story of Teddy Stoddard. Teddy was the one who was disenfranchised with school, and his teacher rolled her eyes when he tried to speak. That all changed when she read his records and found that he used to be a great student until his mom passed away. After that moment, she reflected on her own behavior, and helped engage Teddy. Hey, he even became a doctor and invited her to his wedding and asked her to sit where the mother of the groom should sit.

After reading the story we cried, or at least our eyes watered a bit, and then we thought about how we talked with all of our students. A few of us changed and then some of us just went back to our old behaviors.

If we want students to have a growth mindset or take ownership over their own learning, then we need to get ahold of our biases and look at how we talk about our students...and their parents. If we want to give them a fair shot when they walk into the classroom, we should give them a fair shot before they appear on our class lists.

We all have biases. It’s impossible not to because we judge people based on where they live, what they wear, how they talk (grammar police!), and what their last name is. Perhaps like the story of Teddy, we should review our own stories and decide if we let those biases hinder the way we teach, or help use it to make sure we engage a little deeper.

In the End
If we want students to be fully engaged then we should reflect on how we feel about them. John Hattie’s, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, research shows that teacher-student relationships can have an effect size of .72 which is well above the .40 hinge point that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. There is a lot of power in relationships.

We also have to understand that just because a student didn’t do well with their previous year’s teacher doesn’t have to mean it was the student’s fault. Perhaps the teacher had a bias that they didn’t want to address and instead of blamed the child. As teachers we have an enormous power with our students. Instructional Coaching expert Jim Knight, who I work with as instructional coaching trainer, writes about power over vs. power with. Do you use your power as a teacher to control students, or do you use it to create power with them?

It starts by not cringing when you hear their last name.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Corwin Press best seller, 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.