Teachers Are Powerful


Teachers’ expectations for students – indeed, even their attitudes toward them – has a direct influence on students’ performance and impacts their perceptions of themselves as learners. Research over the past several decades shows that teachers treat the students who they consider achievers (thus, have high expectations for them) differently than those for whom they have lower expectations.

How so?

Low expectations are communicated to students by:

  • Giving less feedback to them, delving into their answers less deeply, and accepting incorrect answers;
  • Calling on them less often and waiting less time for them to answer questions when they are called on;
  • Asking them less challenging questions and rewarding them for less rigorous responses;
  • Smiling less and making less eye contact with them.

English learners, in particular, are often characterized by what they cannot do: they cannot speak English, they are not prepared to be in mainstream classrooms, they do not understand the culture of schools in the United States, their parents don’t speak English and cannot help them with their schoolwork, they do not do as well academically……. You’ve heard many of these comments that reflect “can’t do” attitudes, I’m sure.

We recognize that there are real challenges in teaching English learners in a language they have not yet mastered, and our research, and that of many others, has focused on strategies and techniques to make content comprehensible for English learners while advancing their English proficiency.

Teacher’s attitudes about working with ELs is often born out of lack of preparation for teaching these students effectively. Even teachers with good intentions may be frustrated if they lack specific knowledge of proven ways of teaching grade-level content so that it is comprehensible for English learners and assists in developing their language proficiency.

There are many well-intentioned teachers whose teaching practices unintentionally communicate low expectations and deny English learners access to the education we want for them and that they deserve. From our book, No More Low Expectations for English Learners, consider the following chart:There are many ways to communicate high expectations to English learners including:

  • Recognizing and capitalizing on the assets that students bring: their experiences, language, and background knowledge that may not align precisely with the teaching processes in U.S. schools.
  • Accepting the level of language that students are able to produce and providing supports to help them understand the content of lessons. Developing second language proficiency is a developmental process that takes time – 4-6 years. Students who are trying their hardest may appear passive because they don’t yet have the language to express themselves or may not completely understand the teacher’s expectations for the lesson.
  • Communicating with their families and creating school-family partnerships. Research is clear that family involvement has positive benefits for students.
  • Ensuring that English learners have access to grade-level content, including college-prep courses. Just because students don’t yet speak English fluently doesn’t mean that they can’t think about complex ideas and respond to higher order questions, when provided linguistic supports.
  • Showing interest in each student, getting to know them and discovering their interests and passions. Greeting students by name and asking a simple question or making a comment communicates that you care: How was the soccer game yesterday? That’s a nice blouse, is it new? How is your mother feeling? I like your haircut! This type of specific attention takes about 5-10 seconds per student so a kind word to each student in class costs less than 5 minutes of instructional time and is a valuable investment in developing relationships.
  • Affirming student identity by recognizing that each student has his or her own story. What is her parents’ background? What is her own story? What does she do well (e.g., music, sports, art)? Create opportunities for students to incorporate their heritage, hobbies, and interests into class assignments and share with others. Create a community of learners who know and appreciate one another.
  • Providing research-validated instruction to English learners in a supportive environment before suspicion of learning problems creeps in. When English learners struggle academically, the question isn’t, “What’s wrong with this student?” but instead the emphasis is on instruction: “How can we meet the instructional needs of this student?” There is both under- and over-representation of English learners in special education, which is a nagging and complicated issue. For a discussion of RTI and English learners, click here.

Which column in the chart most reflects your own attitudes? It may be uncomfortable to consider but it is important to question whether our instruction is increasing our English learners’ access to academic opportunity or diminishing it. Perhaps even more important is to ask for help when we’re not certain or when we’re in need of support in improving instruction for our students.

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