Earlier in the year I had a student write a paper for a psychology class. In that paper the student talked about an idea of self-concept, or self-image. We tend to be happy individuals when out our image of ourselves matches with how others see us. And when our image of how others imagine us, we have clearly defined roles that keep us content.
What role do I play in creating a student’s image?
One of the biggest influences on students are grades. When a student receives good grades they tend to start thinking of themselves as a good student. When I get a student coming into my class that had good grades I tend to think that they were a good student. When I give students good grades, the students tend to think I hold them in high regard.
Now imagine that cycle taking place over the course of 10, 11, or 12 years? What if it was a cycle of negative reinforcement (bad grades) occurred? Should we be surprised when so many students have either a love/hate relationship to school?
What happens when one teacher tells them they are intelligent, but another tells them they are incompetent? Sometimes students write off that teacher, but sometimes the students internalize the negative feedback and it absolutely destroys their potential. Let me use a story to illustrate what I am trying to describe. I had a student in class, both math and history for the first time during her freshman year. She was actually a year older than her peers as she had been held back in the past. She had all the classic signs of a student that would struggle in school, anxiety, learned helplessness, scapegoating, etc. I finally had a breakthrough with her during the second year she was working with me when she finally started to develop some confidence. While talking to her I learned that her struggles in school began around the fourth grade, when she received poor grades. It began a self-fulfilling spiral that culminated in high school with a student perpetually on the verge of summer school and credit recovery. She eventually gained enough confidence that she avoid summer classes, and even passed Algebra II with a teacher who failed many other students. But that’s not why I want to bring attention to this story.
During her senior year she had gotten into a small argument with her boyfriend. Specifically, they were arguing about one of her childhood friends who happened to be male. Her boyfriend perceived that he was a threat, she didn’t. I found this for her to read. After reading it she exclaimed, “Ewwww, all my guy friends want to do me.” Regardless of the appropriateness of the statement, here was a girl who had struggled throughout school, had defined herself by that struggle, interpreting graduate level research. I would be the last person to tell students that they can do anything they want, we do have limits, but how many potential career paths have been closed off for this one student because one teacher set in motion cycle of failure that is now defining her life. (The reverse is also true. It is possible to falsely build up a student only to watch them crash and burn later.)
I work at a small school. Since it is a small school I usually see every student for at least 268.5 hours of instruction, usually in classes with under 15 students. Because of the constant schedule fluctuations I have encountered, a hand full of students have spent 537 hours with me, sometimes in classes as small as 3 students. Interacting with those students over that amount of time makes it very possible and probably that they become much more than a grade to me. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t formed favorite students over the years, but by spending so much time with them I hope they realize that the grades they receive in math class are by no means a reflection of their individual self-worth. With all the time that we have spent together I think that we can build an accurate representation of their abilities going forward, regardless of the grade in class. It absolutely destroys me when I see a student that I have worked with for so long building up that confidence, only fall victim to one bad placement test or one bad grade.
However, I need to ask what is my role in this whole process is. Do I play a larger part in the creation of a students self-image because of my position as an authority figure? If I do, I need to tread lightly and cautiously as I have a larger impact on a student’s future than just a grade. If I am making a positive impact I need to figure out how to make that impact more permanent.