The self-fulfilling prophecy

To follow on from Uncovering Einsteins (cf; Dörnyei and Murphey, 1993) I’d like to cite a pretty well-known study by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966) where they took a group of students, gave them an IQ test and faked the results. They then took a completely random 20% sample of the class and told their teacher that these students tested as having particularly high IQs. Some time later it was observed that this 20% were the top students in the class. They were the intellectual bloomers that perfectly illustrated the self-fulfilling prophecy. Unsurprising?

How many of us have hated a subject because a teacher didn’t believe in us? How many of us worked particularly hard at a subject because we loved the teacher and felt he or she really believed in us? How many of us teachers, in our full-time jobs, busy-doesn’t-even-begin-to-describe-it days and Herculean attempts at doing our best, are able to actively show every student that we believe in them? And I don’t mean teachers who just do it as a day job, I’m referring to les crèmes, the people who don’t work as teachers but are teachers.

This is my problem with how frequently and easily the self-fulfilling prophecy is cited in student motivation studies. It boils down to, in an unscientific oversimplification of terms, the fact that if the teacher believes in you, you do better; if the teacher doesn’t believe in you, you don’t. I have a problem with telling a teacher that science has proven that if they manifest belief in a student that student might learn more. There is no equilibrium that can be struck when one human being is held, however partially, responsible for the affective well-being of 50 others.

What next? Now I could pull this in the direction of empowering students, teacher as facilitator and not Jedi master, working towards a co-constructed (Woolfolk, 2005) group. But you all do this already I’m sure. The simple fact that you have taken the time to read a colleague blog about teaching puts you in a different league of educators. So, I’m quite sure your classrooms don’t host much one-way traffic.

So what I’d like to do instead is to look at this problem from a teacher dedication perspective. What is teacher dedication? Well, it’s what makes you create personalised word puzzles for your students with the vocabulary they learnt that week. Go on … admit it … you know you’ve done it. Amazing teachers like Bethany Cagnol overflow with enthusiasm and don’t ever stop. I watched Igor Gavillan speak at TESOL France 2011 and was so energised by how much time, creativity and enthusiasm he brought into his materials. I recently reconnected with Sharon Bales, my first teacher trainer now-turned yoga instructor, who is largely responsible for the teacher I am today. We talked about over-preparing. I know I do but I don’t always see it as a bad thing. It’s like a good research paper, you write three times what you need and in editing it you craft this juicy prose. Luke Meddings’ Plenary was a fantastic testimony of the fact that even when the beautifully crafted preparation ends up in a flickering blue screen, the juice flows and the prose resonates without any technical problems whatsoever quite simply because he believes in what he is talking about.

Only very recently, after 12 years of teaching, was I able to admit that looking after myself every single day and not just at the weekend was as essential to my doing a good job as preparing my lessons. I have more energy when I do sports regularly, I have a happier day when I take the an extra nine minutes to stroll through the farmer’s market and I love meeting my friends, who happen to be teachers as well and laughing about out teenage love stories.

I believe dedicated teachers have an interesting relationship with the self-fulfilling prophecy because it appears to be reflexive in teachers. We believe in students, they do better. We believe in ourselves and this feeds into our sense of self-efficacy and motivates us to do a better job. The question then is who believes in us? Is motivation the buffer zone that keeps dedication from burning out? Is the Mama Elephant some sort of self-propelled motivational force that dedicated teachers have? Whenever I unfold the layers of teacher motivation I am always struck by how autonomous it is, I used to think it was neglected but now I’m starting to think that maybe it is just independent.

I don’t have any answers to the questions I’ve thrown out but if you have read this and are inclined to comment I would be very grateful if you could describe a teacher who has stayed in your memory. Give us your opinion (good, funny etc…) but also give it some juice; what did he/she do? How did he/she enter the classroom, greet the students, handle the lows? What were the highs? Do you imitate him/her? Thank you for taking the time to read this.

6 thoughts on “The self-fulfilling prophecy

  1. Definitely imitate my favorite sociology professor from college. I’ve mentioned him in the two links below. He left a great imprint on me in the way he always transferred the questions and learning to us and never was a “professor”… didn’t need to profess as he inspired.

    Great post, Divya !


  2. Dear Brad,

    Thank you for sharing, I have often wondered on who the people were who left imprints on a teacher with your presence. I definitely find myself imitating you sometimes, especially when I hear myself speaking too fast. I often think about what you said about there not necessarily needing to be fireworks when you first meet a student and meeting someone where they are, and that’s something I often try to do..


    1. I said “no fireworks”… ??? 😉

      It’s hard to temper ourselves in the beginning, especially for naturally bubbly people like toi et moi, but I think it’s important to be able to connect with as many different ranges of students, and feel where they’re coming from right from the start. Cheers !


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