Getting Our Knees Dusty

My friend recently told me a story about her 3rd grade daughter and her teacher. Her daughter got to school one day to learn that her teacher had to leave for the day. She had to visit another school, or go to a meeting, or do some kind of thing that often takes good teachers out of the classroom for a day. So as the 8 year olds arrived at school for the day, they saw their teacher talking with the substitute who would be taking her place. It was, as any teacher knows, a perfect sub scenario. It always works best if you can talk to the person in the morning, and possibly even return at the end of the day to get a report.

Then, the regular teacher left her classroom in the hands of the experienced substitute teacher. Immediately, according to my friend, things went downhill. A few of the students started doing as they pleased, testing their new teacher’s ability to respond. She failed their test, so more of the students jumped into the chaos. My friend’s daughter and her classmates knew this routine because they had seen it before. The sub would frantically try to squelch any uprising, while 3rd grade geniuses were out-plotting her at every turn.

For most of the students in the room, there would be funny moments, anxiety-producing moments, and probably a moment late in the day when another adult came into the room and yelled at them. These third graders had seen chaotic classrooms before, some with regular teachers, and they knew the drill.

But this day was about to get a lot worse. Suddenly, in a mix of frustration and hatred, the substitute starting saying “really bad things.” Of course, my friend pressed her daughter. Did she swear? Was she really mean? No, it was worse. She started picking on students’ futures and their hopes. She started saying they would grow up to be killers and gang members. She told third graders that they would never amount to anything. When the regular classroom teacher returned with a few minutes left in the day, over half of her class was in tears. The bell rang, and the teary-eyed and disheartened third graders filed out to the bus lines.

If I stop here, this would be a terrible story. It is the kind of thing that we all know happens, especially to students of color, more than we care to admit. Teaching students of any age requires often that we are the adults in the room. And, inevitably, some teachers can’t handle that responsibility. In tough moments, they turn into the worst versions of humanity, exposing young people to bigotry and ugliness.

But the story doesn’t end there. My friend met her crying daughter outside of the school and, after a short conversation about the terrifying day, asked her daughter if she wanted to go find her regular teacher. Her daughter agreed, so they fought elementary traffic back into the now-empty building. As they walked through an empty hall, the girl saw her regular teacher walking her way. When the teacher saw her student, she ran up to her and dropped to her knees on a floor that was not very clean. She grabbed her student’s hands and asked her about her day. My friend’s daughter is talkative, so she launched into a rather detailed description. As she relived the day, the tears came gushing back to the surface. So the teacher dropped even further, sitting with legs crossed on the dusty hallway floor, as she listened intently to the girl recount the details of the last 8 hours. She didn’t interrupt at all, she didn’t stop the girl to ease the mother’s fears, and she didn’t make any excuses or talk about student behavior. She simply got to her student’s level, gripped her trembling hands, and listened. The teacher kept her eyes on the student the whole time, not even pausing to look at the mother. The bell had sounded, the day was over, but the work of teaching was still calling loudly.

Tears were running down my face on the other end of the line as I listened to the story. I should cry about racist and hateful teachers, but that kind of story is one that I have heard before. Somehow, at a time when bigotry is flowing daily from positions of political power, a newly-empowered a-hole in society doesn’t surprise me.

However, that teacher, who now has a dusty pair of pants and someone else’s tears on her hands, should inspire us all. She resisted the urge to theorize with the other adult, she fought the company line of saying that the student behavior was unacceptable, and she dropped everything she was doing to listen. She probably had planning to do, copies to run off, phone calls to make, and a meeting to get to, but she forgot all of that for an important moment. 

Her actions were packed with care, and possibly more importantly, belief.

I’ve been thinking about belief a lot lately. I want to figure out why students consistently say that some teachers believe in them and some teachers don’t. I’ve been guilty of being the bleeding heart teacher before, but this is actually grounded in some research. I keep looking at John Hattie’s rankings of 195 influences on student achievement. He takes a list of 195 “influences,” or things we do for students, and puts them into his own research algorithm. To be fair, some have criticized his methods, but the results seem real to me. For a quick reference, something that scores a “0” like “open or traditional” learning environments means that it really has no impact on student achievement. Something that scores a .40, like “goal-setting” or “social skills programs,” means that those things contribute to about a year's worth of academic learning in one year. In other words, there is a research base for setting goals and teaching social skills, while there isn’t much of one for fighting for an open or traditional classroom environment. Those things might matter for  something, but Hattie’s research says they don’t mean much for student achievement.

His research also says that there are some things that impact learning much more. For example, classroom discussion scores a .82, or roughly two years worth of academic learning. It means more for student growth than “prior achievement,” “home environment,” and “peer tutoring.” The top two influences on student achievement are way out in front. They score 1.62 and 1.57, or about 4 years worth of academic growth. Those are the kind of numbers that, if correct, should have every teacher spilling their “#1 Teacher” coffee mug with excitement. The top two influences on student achievement are “Teacher Estimates of Achievement” and “Collective Teacher Efficacy.”

In my own words, that means that the two most important things we can do to help students learn is to believe in them and believe in our own ability. If we believe that they can achieve, and believe that we can help them achieve, they learn at rates that we have never consistently seen in education.

This is where it all gets confusing. Believing in students is kind of hard to quantify, and we haven’t always been good at recognizing what it looks like in a busy and active classroom. If we took a quick survey, we would probably find that most every teacher says they believe in the students they teach. Unfortunately, and I have done this informally over the years, students don’t often feel that belief. They don’t always put it in those terms, but they say things like “she doesn’t teach,” or “he just gives us worksheets,” or “they don’t push me,” or the whole list of other things students say about their teachers who don’t believe in them enough to treat them like the learners they are.

Students feel our belief or disbelief in their ability to learn, and according to Hattie, it really impacts how much they actually learn. This kind of belief is probably not the kind of thing you can fake. If it were simple, we would all go to work on Monday and begin each class by telling the students that we believe in their ability to learn. Students are smart though, and they would see right through that half-hearted attempt to show that we believe. Telling them would actually be showing them that we don’t believe they are smart enough to feel our belief in our everyday interactions. This is probably why we don’t have a whole week of PDs on believing in students, and we instead choose to focus on less important things like classroom strategies. We have no idea how to teach people to believe in their students.

It’s the kind of thing that pervades all of our actions, all of our speech, and the very lessons that we plan and design. It’s the kind of thing that requires us to believe in our own ability as well. My students tell me constantly that they need their teachers to be confident, to listen, to care, and to push. They are, without knowing Hattie, confirming what his research says.

Belief looks different in every moment. But I’m pretty sure it means sometimes sitting down on a dusty floor and holding the hands of a crying 8 year old. I think I believe in my students, but that teacher with a dusty pair of pants has been my inspiration for this week. Hopefully she is yours as well.