Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Lower the Bar, Stifle the Student

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 19, 2022 7 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What is the role of teacher expectations in instruction?

In Part One, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., and Whitney Emke shared their responses.

Today, Courtney Rose, Ed.D., and Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., wrap up the series.

‘Deficit-Based Narratives’

Courtney Rose, Ed.D., is an educational consultant, culturally relevant/responsive educator and the founder of Ivy Rose Consulting through which she offers both individual and group services that foster critical dialogue, collaborative learning activities, and the exploration/development of innovative strategies to humanize teaching and learning. She currently serves as a visiting assistant teaching professor in the urban education program at Florida International University:

When I was working as a 5th grade teacher, it was common practice to either meet with the 4th grade teachers or spend some time going through students’ files prior to the start of the year to “prepare” for the new group that we were about to get. Now, while there are some pros to this practice, because teachers can gain valuable insight into effective resources, supports, and practices for individual students, these sessions could often turn into gripe sessions. On those occasions, teachers shared more concerns and negative experiences than assets and positive experiences, shaping beliefs and expectations about a student before they even enter their classroom for the first time.

As educators, the beliefs about and expectations of our students inform almost every aspect of our instructional practices and engagements with them. If I enter the classroom already holding the belief that a student is a troublemaker, then I will likely expect negative behaviors from him and could become hyperfocused on the few small incidents of being off task and completely overlooking the much more prevalent moments of desirable on-task behavior. If we do this long enough, the student, and the teacher, may internalize that this isn’t just a few incidents here and there but who the student is.

Similarly, deficit-based narratives about particular populations echo through the constant presentation of academic “achievement gaps” and often shape teachers’ beliefs about these students’ intellectual capabilities. These beliefs lower teacher expectations of their students’ ability to engage with instructional materials and activities that are more project-based, require higher-order thinking skills, and place students more firmly in the driver’s seat of their educational experiences.

When educators enter classrooms with low expectations about what their students are capable of academically, they more easily revert to activities that limit students’ abilities to reach their fullest academic potential, fueling deficit-based narratives. In talking to many teachers about their own decisionmaking in communities where these narratives play out the strongest, they often cite that they don’t want to push students too far or too hard because life is already hard enough or they don’t want them to become frustrated and give up.

However, when we enter classrooms with high expectations of our students, we not only design and implement lessons that push them to reach and exceed their fullest potential, we are more inclined to provide the necessary supports for them to do so. We do students no favors by lowering the bar. Instead, we send them the message that if something is hard, just make it easier or do less.

In opening opportunities for students to participate in learning experiences that require deep engagement in critical analysis/dialogue and creative processes, and supporting them through it, we actively contribute to the disruption of deficit-based narratives. We then remove a power layer of barriers that have kept far too many students from gaining access to necessary resources and opportunities.


‘Expectations Weigh Heavily’

Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

Two occasions come to mind where I used the “Power of a Teacher” activity as a workshop facilitator—one with a group of teachers, the other with a group of social workers. In both instances, the response was the same. A teacher has absolute power to shape and form a child’s self-perception for a lifetime.

I use the activity to engage adults in critical reflection on their lives in school. Often, teachers forget that they were once students. When we forget what life was like for us as students, we miss crucial opportunities to critically self-reflect on our role as teacher and our influence on the learners in our care.

The Activity:

I ask each adult to number a sheet of paper from 1 to 12. On each line, I ask them to think about that year in their life from 1st -12th grade and write whatever comes to mind. Writing from their own perspectives, people focus on home life, things happening in the world, society, their city, their town.

Next, I invite them to circle the year in school where their mind wants to linger a bit longer. I then invite them to write one word to describe that year. Overwhelmingly, participants circle a lingering memory of a year in school that was negative, and what made it negative often was in the immediate sphere of influence of a teacher, or other adult, responsible for their care in schools.

When it comes to instruction, a teacher plays a crucial role, and their expectations weigh heavily on a child’s willingness and feeling of safety to take a risk as a learner.

Teacher expectations in instruction can:

  • Encourage or discourage risk taking.
  • Set the stage for what learning looks, like, sounds like and feels like in their classroom.
  • Develop a sense or enhance a student’s sense of self-efficacy as a learner and thinker.

Thanks to Courtney and Angela for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.


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