Student Well-Being Opinion

The Subtle Ways Educators Define and Separate Students

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 08, 2015 5 min read
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There are subtleties all around us. They identify and define us many times. We recently had the opportunity to work with and impressive group of teachers and leaders, members of the Independent Schools of St. Louis. To get there we traveled by air on two different airlines. Perhaps it was because we were in “work mode”, the purposeful signs intended to differentiate among passengers were profound. Some people are privileged, are special, and have an easier time in the world than others. All of it involves money.

You could pay to go to the head of the very long line at security. Once inside, passengers were lined up to board. The sign that said “Preferred” and the sign that said “General” informed us which side of the rope to stand on. Both lines went to the same place, of course. It was just plain silly. But, there were multiple categories of the “special ones” who were called to board before those of us who were “general”. Then, on the plane we noted the first class seats, which were separated from the rest of us by a see through mesh curtain. Really, what purpose did it serve except to exclude and define who was important? The really big deal was leg room...now that mattered. Simply put, the people who paid more got to be called the “Preferred”. They got to board first, get more leg room, sit in front of the see-though mesh curtain and we suspect got more than pretzels as a snack. All are subtle messages, but defining ones just the same.

You must know where we are headed with this. Where does this happen in our schools? How do we define first class and the rest through signage, behavior, and language? In elementary schools, reading groups were named by birds in an attempt to disguise the level of each group. The Robins, the Blue Jays, etc. were used in an attempt to neutralize the stigma assigned to the best readers, the medium skilled readers, and the weakest ones. But truth be told, all students knew which ones were the more advanced readers, the Robins or the Blue Jays. How we define children shows in how they are treated, scheduled, and discussed. The value we place on subjects is revealed in their placement in schedules. The respect afforded to teachers of certain subjects by everyone in the school community reveals status. Our expectations relate to where the student lives or his/her surname; some are “preferred” while others are not. By the time students arrive in the high school, the divisions and the definitions have become clear. Most students by adolescence will live how they have been valued and what they have learned to be in earlier grades.

We define students through the most subtle of signs; it is our own version of a see-through mesh screen or a separate boarding line. It begins early and becomes hardened as they grow through our systems. How we think about things and interact with others has profound effects. Changing this in ourselves and our organizations is a challenge mostly because it calls for an honest look inward, sharing our unpleasant truths, and coming together to change. These are not skills and abilities learned in pre service teaching and leading programs or the professional development opportunities offered once teachers and leaders are active in their roles. They aren’t about content or skills. These are mental and emotional constructs that are personal and operate when we are not thinking about them. They are influenced by our own experiences in life and the mindset to which we have arrived.

Carol Dweck’s Concept of Mindset Has a Place in This Discussion
The thing about recognizing and working with fixed mindset and growth mindset is they provide a non- threatening route into one’s own thought processes and frames of mind from which one operates. School and district-wide, questions about the hidden and embedded messages sent because of beliefs and actions can begin to open minds and reveal unintended messages. The more deeply we know ourselves the better it is for students.

So much attention focuses on student achievement and how teachers can teach better and students can learn more. But, that is only one aspect of the living organism that is school. There is an abundance of contributing factors to whether students reach academic success; whether they are living in poverty, suffering with mental or physical illness, have learning challenges or differences, have fallen behind, have supportive home lives, were read to as toddlers, have attended youth sports leagues outside of school, are well matched with their teachers, are new to the district or have moved often. The list is endless. Sometimes we can have the ability to counter those interfering factors with attention and intervention. As we continue to wrestle with the appropriate standards, measures of those standards, accountability measures, technology, changing teaching methods, resources, digital assets, (this list goes on as well) it can make little difference if those subtle messages we send continue to be limiting and defining. But this is not a one time activity, a one time conversation, a book to read or a thought to have.

In many quarters, a growth mindset had become the right thing to have, the right way to think. It was as though educators were faced with a choice: Are you an enlightened person who fosters students’ well-being? Or are you an unenlightened person, with a fixed mindset, who undermines them? So, of course, many claimed the growth-mindset identity. But the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation (Carol Dweck, EdWeek).

While focusing on raising standards, student achievement, teacher, and principal evaluation, and the endless list of subtle and not so subtle challenges and responsibilities faced daily by educators, the “ongoing journey” to a growth mindset is best kept at the top of the list. School leaders can begin the conversation and keep it going. Our subtle beliefs, bias, and blind spots can be uncovered over time when the leader participates in honest reflection and invites and encourages others into the process; not just once, but in an ongoing process. As with all things, consistency, integrity, and focus helps bring change forward. Recognizing the mindset that each adult brings to each communication and interaction can be revealing. We begin to see the see-through mesh curtains newly and realize that our job is to make them go away...at least in school. Defining students is limiting. That must make sense as a contributing factor to whether a student reaches success or not...doesn’t it? We wonder how airlines would survive without the “general” passengers. And as for schools, well, weren’t we made to serve the community interest, not the special interests? And isn’t it true that when they arrive at our doorstep, every child is special? Let’s be sure it doesn’t change inside.

Some other Leadership360 blogs including Mindset:

Are We Ready to Consider Coaching Instead?

Don’t We Wanto All Students to Graduate?

Develop Lifelong Learners in One Step

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.