Monday, March 14, 2011

Self-fulfilling Prophesies

Years ago I worked with struggling students as a reading specialist in a neighboring school district, and while my main job was to recover them as readers, as spring approached I'd also end up preparing them for the yearly high-stakes exam. One fourth grader (let's call him Mitchell) taught me a lesson about text anxiety that I've never forgotten.

The exam was still weeks away, and while I knew much of what we'd learned about reading strategies would transfer to the test, I felt the need to do some specific test-taking strategy work as well. To begin the process, I asked the kids in the small group I worked with what their thoughts were regarding the test. Were they worried or nervous about how they'd do?

Mitchell, who frankly had struggled much of the year with impulsivity when it came to decoding words and comprehending text, surprised me by telling me he wasn't worried at all. This was the first time I'd ever heard a student say he WASN'T nervous, so I asked him to explain.

"My teacher says she's been teaching us all the stuff we need to know for the test all year long," Mitchell stated. "She said she's not worried about the test and that we shouldn't be either. I know I'm going to do a good job, because she's... what's the word? Confident! She's confident in me."

Sure enough, Mitchell exuded peace about the upcoming test. Not over-confidence -- he was still willing to listen to my pointers about test-strategies -- but there was no fear evident in his demeanor over the next few weeks.

It's possible that on the day of the actual test Mitchell did end up experiencing some butterflies and self-doubt. But what's interesting is that the text anxiety that typically can be debilitating to struggling readers did not affect his ability to learn in the weeks preceding the test. All because of the confidence his teacher inspired in his own abilities. She gave him power over his fears by attributing his likelihood of success to his previous hard work. This self-efficacy made him work even harder instead of giving up, like so many struggling students do.

It's an interesting lesson in how powerful our role as teachers can be, and I've never forgotten it. To paraphrase Henry Ford: "Whether your teacher believes you can do a thing, or not, she's right."

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