Student Well-Being

Training Focuses on Teachers’ Expectations

By Catherine Gewertz — April 05, 2005 9 min read
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Standing before columns of numbers on the blackboard, Jill Lyttle is teaching her 8th graders about prime factorization. She calls on a boy who often struggles in the class. After each not-yet-correct answer, she asks another question until he gets it right. At the back of the room, another teacher silently marks down a point for Ms. Lyttle.

The scene in an Arlington, Va., classroom is part of a training program that aims to raise teachers’ awareness of how they treat their students. The Teacher Expectations & Student Achievement, or TESA, program—which delves into whether teachers deal with their lower-achieving and higher-achieving students equitably—has been used nationally for more than 30 years. But its popularity appears to be increasing as educators seek ways to build teacher-student connections that can engage children in learning.

Over a period of months, teachers in the TESA program learn about 15 pivotal teaching behaviors. They observe one another employing them in the classroom and record the results on a form.

On a recent morning at Kenmore Middle School, Ms. Lyttle’s colleague Sarah Giese watched to see how often she displayed good skills in that month’s three focus behaviors with five of her top students and five who have more difficulty. In turn, Ms. Lyttle observed Ms. Giese, a geography teacher, during the next class period.

At a subsequent after-school meeting, 18 teachers discussed their experiences using the three behaviors—delving, listening, and touching—and studied three new ones they would use and observe in the coming month.

The TESA framework directs teachers to examine their actions in three areas: how they solicit and manage students’ responses to questions, how they give feedback, and how they demonstrate personal regard for students. Each month, they practice one trait from each category.

The results can be eye-opening. Ms. Lyttle, 27, a first-year teacher who has nearly completed the program, said she was dismayed to learn that she called more often on her higher-achieving pupils than she did on her lower-achieving ones.

“I felt really upset,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not that teacher! I call on everyone!’ But I had to see that it was happening, and I learned from that.”

Combating Bias

The Los Angeles County Office of Education designed and piloted TESA in the early 1970s, based on two strands of research. One suggests that students tend to fulfill their teachers’ expectations, however subtly they are expressed. The other shows that teachers respond more positively to students they perceive as higher-achieving, in such ways as asking more challenging questions, giving them more time to answer, or being more patient when they misbehave.

Raising Teachers’ Awareness

The Teacher Expectations & Student Achievement program encourages participants to focus on these behaviors.

How Teachers Interact With Students

Encouraging Participation Giving Feedback Showing Regard
Calling on students equally Affirming, correcting responses Standing close to students
Offering individual help Giving praise Being courteous
Waiting for students to respond Citing reasons for praise Taking an interest, complimenting
Delving deeper into subject matter Listening closely Using touch to build rapport
Asking higher-level questions Accepting students’ feelings Managing misbehavior

The program’s designers sought to develop tools to help teachers become aware of, and counteract, judgments they form of students based on children’s race, socioeconomic class, gender, skills, or temperamental style. A study of the program in the mid-1970s showed lower-achieving students whose teachers had been trained in TESA scored significantly better on standardized tests than children whose teachers had not.

More than 100,000 teachers have been trained in the past 20 years in TESA, which is administered by the Los Angeles County office. Eighty to 100 schools annually request training for workshop leaders, who then train teachers. That figure has risen 20 percent a year since 1997, said Anita Miller, TESA’s project director.

Ms. Miller sees the program as a unique mixture of elements crucial to successful teaching. Some techniques, such as higher-level questioning, strengthen students’ cognitive skills, while others, like showing respect, build confidence and relationships that serve as crucial conduits for academic content, she said.

“TESA addresses the whole child,” Ms. Miller said.

Focusing training on teacher-student interactions draws skepticism in some quarters, however, especially in a time of pressure to ensure that teachers are well-versed in content and pedagogy and that all students master academic material.

Heather G. Peske, a senior associate on teacher quality with the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, believes that the skills TESA teaches are valuable, but are insufficient if educators lack expertise in the subjects they teach.

“We’d worry that students might be treated nicely and equally, but are not learning anything,” she said.

Tom Blanford, the associate director of the National Education Association’s teacher-quality department, received TESA training as a high school teacher in the late 1980s. He said it helped him offset advantages he unconsciously gave some groups of students. But it doesn’t necessarily help a teacher diagnose what children of varying skill levels need and then know how to deliver it, he said.

Ronald F. Ferguson’s work focuses on the importance of teacher-student relationships as one of three crucial parts of learning, along with content and pedagogy.

In surveying teachers, the Harvard University lecturer has found that many believe their own lack of knowledge contributes to their students’ difficulties. Teachers’ expectations of students are inextricably linked to their own skills, so ensuring that teachers know how to routinely ensure students’ success is the best way to change their ideas about what the children can accomplish, he said.

“Then it becomes what you’ve experienced, not what you’re expecting,” Mr. Ferguson said. “What is it you target, teachers’ expectations or teachers’ skills? My conclusion is you’ve got to target teachers’ skills. Then the expectation piece takes care of itself.”

Some see TESA as imparting the right blend of techniques to fulfill the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes ensuring high academic achievement for all students, including those who have traditionally struggled. Examining expectations for students leads naturally to making sure all types of children have what they need in the classroom, said Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council, an Oxford, Ohio-based group that advocates high-quality teacher training.

“What NCLB says is, let’s look at all the kids, and TESA provides that,” he said.

Make or Break

Jeanette Johnson, the director of state and federal projects for the 15,000-student Bellflower, Calif., school district, found that using TESA at certain schools experiencing problems proved a potent strategy. She saw a “marked improvement” in how teachers worked with students deemed at risk of academic failure, she said.

Margaret Beale Spencer’s work convinces her that teachers’ expectations of their students hold the power to make or break the learning experience. The University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology and education found in one 1999 study that adolescent African-American males who perceived that teachers held negative attitudes about them displayed more “bravado” behavior and were less engaged in school.

“When kids infer negative teacher perceptions, they engage in coping responses geared toward protecting the self,” she said. “These youngsters value learning. They value high achievement. But when they start to get negative feedback about who they are, they can shut off the source of that learning.”

In the Arlington public schools, a 19,000-student district in Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, TESA has been used since 1999 as a strategy to close racial and ethnic achievement gaps. The district has come to see it as a training tool it wants to impart to all its teachers.

Kranulett F. Hunter, the supervisor of Arlington’s office of professional development, said the program is “the most reflective” teacher training she’s seen. It provides a valuable “common language” and framework teachers can use to discuss and improve their practice, she said.

“TESA is not just a training program. It’s a philosophy, anchored in the belief that the relationship between a teacher and a student is a key component to academic success,” Ms. Hunter said. “That’s our belief.”

At a recent after-school session, teachers from several of the district’s schools discussed the three interactions they had practiced in their classrooms during the previous month: listening, delving, and touching.

Some teachers said they found it difficult to delve—take time to rephrase questions, go more in depth, or give clues—to help one particular student because others “zoned out” or got impatient. One said she felt it embarrassed lower-achieving students to focus that sort of attention on them. Another said she saw that such a sustained focus on a struggling child made a positive impact, because other students were assured they’d get the help if they needed it. Members of the group brainstormed about ways to delve successfully with their pupils.

The classroom observations have yielded valuable information that goes beyond the targeted skills, Lee Dorman, a Kenmore Middle School science teacher and TESA co-facilitator, said in an interview later.

One teacher came to see one of her uncooperative pupils in a very different light when she saw the girl in a colleague’s class during a TESA observation, Ms. Dorman said. The teacher being observed was practicing taking a personal interest in students, and the observing teacher noted how well the girl responded. She was able to see that the girl’s difficulties stemmed from her parents’ recent divorce and build a stronger relationship with her, and the girl’s behavior improved, Ms. Dorman said.

Guiding Students

Judyt Herrera, an eighth-year educator who teaches English-language learners, said TESA helps her strengthen techniques, such as ensuring “wait time” after posing a question, that benefit not only the students reluctant or slower to participate, but also those who raise their hands quickly and often.

“The talkative ones might speak out right away, but maybe not with the right answer,” she said. “I use [TESA techniques] to slow it down, ask more questions, give clues, to help them get it right.”

Diana Jordan, who teaches 8th grade world geography, said she was chagrined to realize through TESA that she tended to overlook the quieter students. It’s taken effort, she said, but she’s learning how to redistribute her focus. One technique she is using is to pair quieter students with more forthcoming ones, and ask each pair to come up with answers to her questions. When she queries each pair, she can call on more of the quiet students, she said.

Ms. Jordan believes TESA supplies a critical element that other training, with its curriculum focus, does not supply.

“There’s curriculum, there’s method, and there’s this,” she said, referring to TESA. “You can be a great teacher, but if you can’t relate to the kids and feel like they can do it, it doesn’t matter how well you know your content.”


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