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?!

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