The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Works Both Ways

Note: This is an op-ed with no cited research!

We recently saw a spectacular production of Purpose, an epic family drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at Steppenwolf theater in Chicago. The parents in this family both project their expectations onto their two sons and label them unfairly, leading both sons to live up to those labels.

The play was a provocative exploration of family relationships that led to an hour-long discussion on the way home. To my surprise, that dialogue brought me to my frustration with the high school where I taught in Connecticut. That school offered five sections of freshman English, and they were labeled Honors, High Average, Average, Low Average, and X. Impotent as a brand-new teacher there, already planning a move to Illinois, I was powerless to convince the administration that such labels are harmful. Being called “average” may not encourage students to reach for greater success, but its impact pales in comparison to the damage done by a label like “low average,” not to mention “X.” I taught five sections that included two “average,” two “low average,” and one “X.” It must not come as a surprise that my classes lived up to [down to?] their labels, that my low average class made limited effort, and that my X class behaved terribly and did little work. I like to think that I made some progress in dispelling those labels, and I did eke some achievement out of all my students. But this experience offered the most blatant example of how important the way we label and describe people can be.

When I landed at Glenbard West, we had three levels of English for the first three years: Honors, Regular, and Basic. While those labels seem less hurtful, getting my “Basic” students to see themselves as achievers remained an uphill battle. I loved the smaller class size and less rigid curriculum that I could tailor to each class, but too many of my students accepted the premise that they were remedial students and could not expect to be successful.

I struggled to change their minds. I addressed these students formally, Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones, to show my respect. I seized on their best moments for genuine praise, like when one of my girls prompted a great discussion about why Curley’s wife doesn’t have a name like all the male characters. Together they were able to guess that Steinbeck wanted readers to see her merely as Curley’s property. When another student, responding to events in another book, said aloud, “When you choose not to choose, you have chosen,” I turned it into a poster for the class to see daily. And when one of those classes complained about being bored, I responded [as I always did] that “boredom is in the eye of the beholder.” They remained unconvinced, so I urged them to write about it. They produced this collaborative poem:


                  you walk around with nothing to do

you are the dull grey of an old movie

                  without the crispness of black

or the freshness of white

you stalk schoolrooms,

invading English and Biology classes –

even social studies and driver’s ed

are not immune to your attack.

You are invisible and sneak up on us,

                  Shutting down our brains

while our yawns gape, making teachers angry.

By English II-B

February, 1991

I was so pleased with their sensory details, impassioned emotions, and thoughtful word choice that I convinced them to submit their poem to the jury process for Page to Stage, our annual performance of student writing.  When it was chosen, they insisted they would not read it aloud on stage, that I should ask theater and speech students to read it for them. Knowing a bit about reverse psychology, I assured them I would do that if they weren’t up to the task. After some rehearsal during class time, they chose to participate, and watching them stand taller and taller during their choral recitation to an enthused audience is one of my favorite teaching memories. In my early years at West, I saw some of my “Basic” students go on to college, including one who went to a four-year school, something none of them would have predicted.

During the years of folded computer printer paper, when you’d just tear between pages as needed, I printed a multi-page version of a favorite quote that decorated my classroom wall: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” My belief that my students could achieve seemed to help them do just that. But when we label learners, we give them the wrong message. When we call students “Basic” or – heaven forbid! – “X,” we tell them we don’t think they can succeed. Too often they will live up to those negative expectations. We know better. We should do better by our students. We should avoid labels where we can and choose encouraging labels when we must use them. All of us fall prey to self-fulfilling prophecies, and we must stop setting students up for low expectations and failure. They deserve better.

Becoming a “Lighthouse”

This week I had the privilege of attending a Special Education Eligibility Hearing for a student for whom I’m a Guardian ad Litem. I drove a fair distance to an unfamiliar school; there I was welcomed and made to feel included.
Eleven of us gathered around a conference table to explore how best to support this student. An innocent victim of a tragic accident, this student has very specific needs for services to support vision and hearing. I have attended hearings like these as a teacher, but my perspective at this hearing felt so different. As a teacher, I might have worried about how to manage the required accommodations, but as a guardian I worked to be sure those accommodations would be made available.
My first teaching job in 1970 preceded any kind of special education for students like this. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, wasn’t signed into law until late 1975.The EHA guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country.  It has been renamed and amended since then, but the purpose remains: to guarantee an appropriate education for every student, at no cost to parents, in the least restrictive environment, with an “Individualized Education Program” that identifies each student’s individual needs and how they will be met.
Our group included the DCFS Caseworker, the foster mother, and eight staff members, including teachers, the school psychologist, the vision support specialist, the speech therapist, the social worker, and the chair of Special Education. As I listened to these committed, compassionate adults develop an action plan, I thought about what would have happened to this student in the early days of my teaching, before 94-142. My student would have faced untold struggles and been unlikely to achieve a fulfilled and independent adult life, yet this is a resilient youth whose struggles were caused by others and who deserves assistance to achieve success in school and build a full life.
When I was still teaching, I enjoyed collaborating with our Special Education Department. I worked with special ed English classes on creative writing, I helped them produce a newsletter as well as a performance where they read their work to family members, and I co-taught an American Literature inclusion class for juniors with six to eight special education joining other students to be team-taught by the special ed department chair and me. I thought I was a supportive enough advocate, but this week’s hearing strengthened my resolve. Providing special resources and accommodations like extra time on tests or different kinds of printed materials certainly is a burden on already overloaded schools and teachers. But it’s necessary and right, and I remain in awe of a team like this that is not only making it happen, but that also works on how to make it acceptable for a student like mine who desperately wants not to be seen as different.
That would have been epiphany enough for this week – smile – but yesterday reinforced it when I got to hear Steve Pemberton speak. Pemberton wrote A Chance in the World, his personal memoir of being raised in a series of abusive foster homes and what helped him find his way to a fulfilling adult life. His follow-up book, The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World, shows how ordinary people can become “human lighthouses” for those in situations like those of his childhood. Yesterday Pemberton spoke about the three lighthouses who changed the trajectory of his life; then he encouraged us to continue to be lighthouses for others. His talk, delivered with humor and without a trace of self-pity, inspired me to recommit to my guardian work. It made me want to share his perspective with the people who sat around that table, each and every one of whom is a lighthouse. Last night I had a wonderful call with the foster mother of my student, and I explained to her why she is a lighthouse. When I finish the book, I’ll pass it on to her – she’s earned it! And I will continue to push myself to be a lighthouse for the youths in my cases. Every child deserves a fair chance, and we all can make a difference.

Best Buddies at Graduation

Last week we had the pleasure and privilege of attending our middle granddaughter’s graduation from a Chicago public magnet high school. The ceremony was held at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in Chicago because the school auditorium was too small for the class of over 450 and all of their supporters. The event was lovely if long, and we especially enjoyed seeing a certain young woman prance across the stage with grace and confidence to receive her diploma. The class stats were mind-boggling: every student was headed to a four-year college, and they’d logged countless volunteer hours in the community, won numerous academic and athletic championships, and earned $56 million in scholarships! Memorable and impressive, to be sure. That’s part of the package of a top-notch magnet school.

The part we didn’t anticipate happened when the Special Education students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas and certificates. Part of the mission of Whitney M. Young Magnet School is “To give students with disabilities the same high school opportunities as their non-disabled peers.” In addition to a sizable faculty and staff, the school has a Best Buddies program that pairs regular and special ed students. Some of these students could not make it across the stage without physical support; a couple had trouble following the directions. But each and every one of them received the same response from the audience of parents, friends, and peers: loud cheering and applause with great gusto. This is a truly inclusive community where high-achieving students whose academic success is often a given appreciate and celebrate the success of those who have overcome obstacles to be able to march across that stage. Their genuinely joyful response was uplifting.

When I commented on it, I was assured that those who have attended multiple Whitney Young graduation ceremonies experience that every year. Being part of that kind of school culture, with genuine inclusion, prepares students to work and live with others regardless of their circumstances. It gives me hope for the future.