Monday, February 15, 2010

Are Stereotypes Ruining Our Kids?

In my career as an educator I have seen stereotypes negatively impact a child on more than one occasion.  I can't begin to explain how angry it makes me to see a student fail because of the stereotype a teacher or even administrator has placed on them.

I will start this blog by explaining my own experience with stereotyping.  When I started school, I was the free-lunch child in the back of the room with the messy hair that never said a word.  I didn't know at the time that teachers labeled me as a student that would not succeed but as I look back, I realize how the ideas of those teachers impacted me.  Due to my shyness (and maybe a little to do with that messy hair) in one grade I was labeled as deaf and in other I was put in remedial classes.  Even though things got progressively better for me by high school, I never really shook that image.  I blended into the wall and rarely did many teachers speak to me.

Fast forward to my first years as a teacher.  As a family and consumer sciences (Home Ec) teacher, I tended to get some of the kids that many teachers for whatever reason, didn't want.   I learned that very fast when a teacher looked at my roster and rolled her eyes time and time again.  As her eyes were about to fall out of her head I remembered something I was told in college.  DON'T COMPARE ROSTERS!  I figured out in that very moment why that was important.  There was one kid in particular that everyone reacted the same to when seeing his name on my roll.  Oh, that kid is a mess!  Be prepared, Julie, he'll give you grief.  Well, I took what they said and turned it around.  When the kid walked in my class I spotted him immediately.  Sporting a skull shirt, all black, long hair and slouching over.  I said to him, "Hi there!  You look like a smart guy!  Welcome to my class!"  I don't know if it started with that introduction or not, but that kid was one of the best students I ever had.  I still keep in contact with him to this day and I saw him flourish in my classroom going from the kid at the back to the kid that stood tall and stayed after to work on projects or help with lab cleanup.  I refused to treat him in the manner that other teachers had.  He was used to being watched over every second, used to teachers commenting on anything he did wrong and just constantly being in a negative atmosphere.  I felt so sorry for this kid because once I got to know him, even though he was failing a lot of courses, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met.

This story has happened so many times to me in my career on various levels with different outcomes, most all positive.  Recently, I had a similar situation, so I have been thinking lately what is the common denominator?  I think I have it.  Most all of these kids were smart and had a drive to flex those smarts in the classroom.  They all had behavior problems in the classroom.  Most all of them it seemed from years of being told "get in your seat", "sit up straight", "do what I tell you", "go to detention".  I could see it in their face the first time I told them to have a seat or get out their pencil.  They'd immediately get defiant over these small requests that most students are used to hearing on a daily basis.

I learned that handing them a project and letting them be creative helped.  For one, he liked to rap his notes.  Another liked to do kitchen prep work for labs, etc.  I really truly believe these kids are the perfect 21st century learners and they're being stunted by 19th century teaching practices. It has nothing to do with their behavior, nothing to do with their appearance, it has to do with how they learn.  And, like me nowadays, they struggle learning in a chair.  This whole problem is one of the reasons I have not admitted into a doctoral program yet.  I truly believe I would feel like one of these students.  I can no longer learn sitting in a chair listening to someone lecture.  It's just not going to work for me.  Tell me what to learn and I'll go learn it and report back.

So, why is it so hard to let kids do this?  Especially those kids that seem to need it.  Why do we push their hands down when they have questions?  Why do we want them to be quiet when they're sharing their own stories about the topic at hand?  I see kids like this flourish more and more as teaching practices are changing.  I hear teachers say things like, "wow, that kid that normally gives me problems was really good during that project".  My hope is that teachers will begin to realize this and give these students the same opportunities to succeed as others in the class.


  1. Very powerful post Julie! We as educators must let our students walk into our classrooms with a blank slate! How many kids could we turn around if we all took this approach to our students? You speak about the two most important things we need to consider in education reform today...relationships and relevance! As teachers we must care for our students and make what we do relevant to them! Nice job!

  2. Thank you Dave. This is a topic I am so passionate about and I appreciate your understanding of my concern. Our students are precious. We have no idea what is going on in those little heads. Some of it we can't even begin to understand. They need someone to give them a break at some point.

  3. I feel the same way. I have a heart for the rejected and forgotten. I too, try to take the students for who they are and not necessarily what I've heard from others.

    I have one student who likes to just stand up all during class. It bothered me at first and I don't even know why. Now I just let him stand because he needs to and what's the point in arguing with that?

    Another student has to repeat everything back to me, he's an audio learner but he doesn't know it. It can be very annoying but he just needs to hear himself say it in his own words to understand.

    I also take time to question everyone about their weekend on Monday's and just try to take some time to connect with each student briefly as often as possible.

    I think that giving them any of our specific attention proves that they are valued and worth being paid attention to.

  4. As an art teacher I consistently saw the same story played out in my classroom year after year in school after school. To answer your question, the reason is most teachers come into this profession from similar backgrounds and thus collectively are loaded with similar biases regarding how school is supposed to be done and what a "good" student is supposed to look like. What is even more difficult is when you are the only teacher a kid has success with and the other staff see the success as a failure to do your job ("If you aren't disciplining that kid every day you aren't doing your job."). That can be lonely and isolating. I have found, in most schools, that teachers tend to evaluate other teachers by the students they work with, not what they do with the students they work with. Incidentally, this is also a big flaw with many versions of performance pay. It is refreshing to hear another teacher with this kind of philosophy and relationship with their students.

  5. Have you read Glasser? You are a Glasser guru!! He has been saying the same thing for years; if a teacher structures a classroom so that children's needs are met, then the students put learning into their "quality worlds." Thanks for your wonderful insight. jim amendum

  6. Jim, I've not read Glasser. I"ll be sure to check into it though. Working on finishing the books Leadership and Self Deception & Emyth now. Thanks for the tip!