Self-fulfilling prophecy in schools

Yesterday I met up with a student from the seventies who wanted to get some advice from me as she was about to start teaching an after-school remedial English course at a secondary school. This is the first time in her working life that she gets a chance to teach English in secondary classrooms, so she is quite excited about it. During our discussion, she remarked several times that she couldn’t understand why the teacher-in-charge kept emphasising to her that the students were very weak.

Half-jokingly, I told her there are 4 possible reasons:
1. The students concerned ARE very weak.
2. It is an occupational habit, especially among Chinese communities. Teachers seldom say: “Our students are very smart, and diligent.’ What they say is usually the opposite.
3. The teacher-in-charge doesn’t want my former student to have inflated expectations for the students.
4. This is the way that the teacher-in-charge PERCEIVES his students.

As I continued to probe for more background information about the course, and got to know more about the way the teacher-in-charge related to my former student, I became more and more convinced that it was due to the fourth reason that the teacher-in-charge had such a negative view of his students.

Yet, I told my former student that this mentality is not rare among teachers, and the greatest harm that it may do is that it may result in “self-fulfilling prophecy” – teachers keep dumbing down their teaching; students get the explicit and implicit message that they are incapable and respond accordingly.

But a new teacher brings new hopes. I myself have taught at 4 secondary schools. Every time I began teaching at a new school, I started with no pre-conceptions of what the students were like. I did not know, and did not bother to find out, who were the star students, and who were the weaker ones. I treated them equally. I had the same expectations for them.

I did not know at the time that in doing so, I had either changed some students, rebuilt their self-confidence, or rekindled their interest in learning. I only learnt about that some years later when I had the chance to meet up with them again, and they told me how i had changed them.

Self-fulfilling prophecy works both ways.

So, I wish my former student all the best with her first endeavour in teaching English to a group of secondary students who are labelled as ‘very weak’ in English. I want her to know that as the students’ new teacher, she may be able to do miracles to them, and with them.

Who knows?!







幾米: “真正的善良不是軟弱更不是退讓,而是從不去主動傷害別人,不會糾纏不休,懂得適可而止。 為人處世以誠相待,不欺騙,不撒謊。以誠懇善良的心去面對所有的人 。”

What motivates teachers: The importance of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

During the summer (and last night), whenever I had a reunion gathering with my former students, I would make a point of asking them how they were experiencing their work. Are they enjoying their teaching? Or are they feeling frustrated and burned out? Why?

Their answers directly and indirectly confirm what Dan Pink has identified as the three most crucial factors for motivation in the workplace: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. (“Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”.) Now, let me exemplify these factors with the teachers’ experiences, beginning with the last factor.

PURPOSE: In order to sustain motivation at work, people need to see the purpose of what they are doing. In education, we also refer to that as ‘meaning’: What is the meaning of my work as a teacher? Theoretically, compared with other jobs and professions which deal with non-human materials or matters, teaching should be a job that is easier for practitioners to find meaning. After all, we are dealing with young people, and there is the potential for us to make a difference in their lives. However, if teachers have to spend excessive amounts of time on non-teaching duties which have nothing to do with educating young people, such as organising events that only aim to raise publicity for the school, attending long and tedious meetings that lead to nowhere, and having to give students tons of mechanical homework and then marking them equally mechanically, they begin to wonder: “What am I doing all this for?” I may be exceptionally pessimistic, or cynical, but what I have been seeing in the last ten years or so is that some schools are forgetting what they exist for. They are not reflecting enough on purpose when formulating policies or engaging in day-to-day activities.

MASTERY: For teachers to keep up their passion, they need to feel that they are becoming better and better at what they are doing – designing lessons, classroom management, dealing with problem students, etc. For this to happen, they need enough time to concentrate on the professional aspects of their work, such as planning effective lessons, creating interesting learning resources, and participating in professional development activities. I call this ‘feeling professional’. Teachers need to have a sense of pride in their work. Today, teachers have to possess all the requisite professional qualifications before they can become fully qualified teachers. Yet, sometimes these professional qualifications are flaunted on the school website simply to boost the school’s image, and are not tapped into in school cultures that do not emphasise and value good teaching and superb professionalism. If all that teachers can do is donkey work, they will lose their passion in teaching sooner or later.

Autonomy: Teachers need some space where they can exercise their professional decisions. Of course, there should be a degree of common ground between what teachers (e.g., of the same grade level teaching the same subject) do. But unifying or monitoring what teachers teach, or do, to the point where they simply follow some plans designed by others to the letters will do more harm than good in keeping up their initiative and creativity (if these are still treasured by school administrators). Sir Ken Robinson has asserted again and again that for teachers to thrive, what they need is support, not control. For me, it is particularly disheartening to hear stories about how some school administrators, on receiving complaints from parents who are not well-informed about pedagogical theories or the rationales behind teachers’ policies and classroom management practices, impose their own wishes on the teachers, just to appease the parents. Why don’t they instead explain to parents the school’s pedagogical practices and urge them to trust the teachers? After all, we are professionals in education!

Related to autonomy is the concept of trust. Those of my former students who have reported that they are enjoying their work, or are at least finding part of their work rewarding, highlight trust by the school administrator as the crucial factor why they don’t mind sacrificing much of their own time and why they are more than willing to go the extra mile in performing their duties.


Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – these are what make teachers go out of their way to do great things for the students, and for their school!

DRIVE: The Summaries

Difficult students becoming friends

Just now, I stumbled on an inspiring piece of sharing by a teacher: “It’s not uncommon for former students to come visit me. However, this bunch is really ‘special’ … They were once my source of headache but now we are friends … we can basically talk about ANYTHING … From latest movies, school gossip, and now Puppy love …”
Every teacher will have their share of ‘difficult’ students, and although we know that as professional educators, we should be patient and understanding, there will be times, amid the innumerable urgent and stressful things that we have to deal with, that we wish these difficult students were not there.
This teacher’s sharing reminds us that for some students, being ‘difficult’ is part of the journey of growing up. (And some of us might have been difficult students once!) With that realisation, it may perhaps be easier for us to keep our cool when being confronted by a difficult student, and to persevere.

A big brother watching me all the time?

It happens quite often that after I have visited a commercial website for information about a product or service, their advertisement will appear on my Facebook a few minutes later. So, somebody, or some super-computer, has been keeping track of my every move on the Internet. This does send chills down my spine, as if there is a Big Brother watching me all the time – not from George Orwell’s 1984, but perhaps even more disturbing.