X
ARTICLE

Subtle Messages Shape Students

"I just don’t know what to do about Jordan," confessed Mary, whom I’d just met. I don’t know if she was confiding in me because I teach English or because that’s just what one does at a nail salon. “Last year, he spent hours filling his journals and talking about being a writer when he grew up. Now he hardly writes at all. He says he’s not any good at it.”  

"I just don’t know what to do about Jordan," confessed Mary, whom I’d just met. I don’t know if she was confiding in me because I teach English or because that’s just what one does at a nail salon. “Last year, he spent hours filling his journals and talking about being a writer when he grew up. Now he hardly writes at all. He says he’s not any good at it.” 

Mary explained that during the previous school year, her son’s English teacher praised him for his writing and encouraged him to keep a journal. It was filled to the brim by the last day of school. Unfortunately, this year’s writing teacher focused primarily on mistakes he’d made. The constant criticism caused him to believe that he was not a good writer. Jordan soon began to dread English class. He stopped journaling altogether.

I don’t believe that Jordan’s teachers differed in their intentions or motivations—both wanted him to excel at writing. But something was subtly different between the two. Neither explicitly labeled him as good or bad, but their attitudes, words and actions yielded wildly different outcomes. 

This particular phenomenon is not an isolated occurrence. The power of suggestion or expectation has been labeled as self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone just believes he or she will fail then failure is likely.

A 2010 study found that even slight hints about expectations can influence a student one way or another. In this study, researchers gave several students the same test. Test takers were divided into three groups. Members of one group were told to identify their tests with an A. The second group used an F. The third group used a J. The test takers who used A outperformed the F and J students, and the F’s ranked the lowest. These differing scores reveal how vulnerable students are to even subtle suggestions about their performance.

We need to be aware of the many subtle ways that we communicate approval and affirmation—or the opposite. This requires reflection on our part. But it also requires vigilance in day-to-day interactions with students.

Consider where particular students sit: Are they physically far away from you?

Do you smile more often at some students?

Do you call on everyone or just a select few? Do you give each student equal time when answering a tough question? Do you feed hints to only certain students and then lack patience with others? 

It is impossible to be aware of all the unintentional messages we send students. However, we must do our best to use the power of the unsaid for students’ benefit. We must ensure that Jordan will continue to fill many more journals. 

Sansbury is a middle and high school English teacher in Georgia.