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Helping Students Realize Their Most Capable Selves

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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Most of us have had an experience where an adult—a parent, a teacher or a coach—thought of us as more capable than we actually were. So we were. The mere suggestion that we could play a song, score a goal, or learn another language opened a door to these possibilities. As a colleague of mine likes to say, we often ask students to "fake it 'til they make it." However, most students only risk doing something poorly if they think they will ultimately succeed. That is where we, as teachers, can make a real difference.

Students would ideally not need external permission to believe in their own abilities, but most teachers know that they often do. Our students regularly look to us to gauge what is possible and help them develop their most capable selves. How we name and frame what is possible for students often shapes their own sense of possibility.

Conversely, communicating limited potential to our students can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how clever or considered our teaching is, if our students do not believe they can learn something, it is unlikely they will. Students who have unconventional learning needs are most vulnerable to adult expectations. From the first day of school, they look around the room and see that sounding out words or writing sentences or remembering math facts is more difficult for them than for their classmates. Consequently, they worry that they possess limited intellectual potential. Teacher expectations regarding their abilities, both implicit and explicit, can help to diminish their anxiety—or reinforce it.

Creating Classroom Conditions That Grow Student Potential

Growing student potential through high expectations is not as simple as a shallow cheer of "You can do it!" In addition to communicating to students that we believe they can do whatever they set their minds to, there are several factors that need to be in place for positive expectations to translate into reality.

Perhaps most importantly, students need a safe classroom culture where the messiness of learning can be normalized. In the fall, I have my new students write me letters to introduce themselves. The letters tell me about their interests, hopes, and goals for the year; their strengths and challenges as learners; and what helps them learn best.

Almost every letter includes a request for a "safe learning zone" as their main hope for the new school year. They want learning spaces where they are safe to struggle, fail, and ask for help without being ridiculed by their peers or shamed by their teachers. That seems like a basic request, but meeting it can be surprisingly difficult. Classrooms need to be places where students can confidently employ the tools and supports they need to learn without embarrassment or judgment.

Students also need to feel known. My 5th grade students want me to appreciate their strengths, but they do not want to hear empty praise. Observing and acknowledging their struggles and trying to find ways to support them helps build trust and credibility. I admit that I sometimes exaggerate my observations to help students visualize their possibility for growth, but I always use real examples that my students can recognize.

For example, I make an effort to reference their letters during that first week of school by making an authentic observation and building on what they have told me:

"Based on your letter and my conversation with your teacher from last year, I get the sense that you have struggled to be attentive during instruction, but I can see that you have already made a shift with your body language and clarifying questions during explanation. It is amazing what kind of growth can happen over the summer. So many 4th graders who struggled to pay attention overcome that struggle when they enter 5th grade. I am excited for you! Let me know how I can support your new attentiveness in terms of seating or using a special visual cue to redirect you if you start to drift off. You are already on your way!"

It can be very empowering when a teacher identifies a positive attribute that the student might not have previously considered. Even if the student is not sure that the observation is true, there is a desire to make it so.

Embracing Challenges as Opportunities

Students also need to understand that their struggles to read fluently, spell correctly, process information quickly, or memorize information easily are separate from their intellectual abilities. They may struggle with all of these skills and also be the most creative and the deepest thinker in the classroom. Understanding this can help students embrace the potential for assistive technologies, academic supports, or workarounds to help them express their unique ideas.

Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom is also fundamental to helping students reach their potential. Students who understand that struggling is not a sign of inability are more likely to grasp the value in trying new strategies and approaches when challenges arise.

For example, when students struggle to express themselves in writing, they often decide that they are "bad writers." Employing a dictation app can allow them to focus their mental energies on their ideas, rather than the physical mechanics of writing. Though the process of converting spoken language to written words can be time-consuming, many students discover that finding a way to express their ideas is worth some extra work—and that they are actually good at it.

When we consider our students' academic challenges as opportunities for problem-solving, we also model our own growth process. Through our words and actions, we can communicate that learning something difficult can be messy, but is ultimately achievable. That is often all it takes to give students permission to believe it themselves.

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