Personal perspectives

How to stop focusing on student deficits

Four minutes
Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

In politics, deficits are death. At least that is how it seems based on recent times here in Australia, with our fixation on getting “back in the black” and cheering for razor thin surpluses. Regardless of how important the deficit versus surplus debate in politics might be, there is one context where a different kind of deficit is unquestionably a serious problem.

Unsolicited opinions

I recently took over a senior vocational class in my school. I have been out of the classroom for the last eighteen months in a range of other roles and I was excited to be finally returning to working with kids once again. Yet, few others shared my enthusiasm.

“That cohort doesn’t do any work.”

“They try and leave all the time.”

“They swear constantly.”

These were just a few of the things that some members of the school community were happy to share with me, usually without checking how necessary the contribution was. Notice how the focus is not on the skillsets of the students?

In education, there is little that can be more potentially damaging than a deficit mindset when teachers think about their students. Teacher perceptions of student ability to learn are among the most powerful of all influences on student learning. I am confident that there is no teacher who could not or would not parrot the party line about high expectations but in many instances, we don’t live that line.

And I sympathise with why this can happen. Teachers work extremely hard, at times in emotionally trying circumstances. It is genuinely difficult to maintain the level of relentless action and work needed to stay unconditionally positive and energised about and for students.

But there is simply no other option. We are the professionals in the room and we have a critical responsibility to do this work. All students, no matter what program or background, deserve it.

If we have a deficit mindset, then we deny them this opportunity.

A  counter-narrative

As tempting as it can be to follow along with the focus on the negative aspects of “challenging” students and their behaviour, we need to offer an alternative narrative. If we focus only on people’s deficits it is counterproductive.

We undermine the collective efficacy of the teachers and more importantly the self-efficacy of the students. We sell a whole class or cohort of young people short when we refuse to talk about what they can do. It is a mindset that we can and must shift.

My new students have already done much to contradict the narrative that was put in place for them. As part of my introduction to the class, I explained to them that Survivor is objectively the greatest show on television. I warned them that they would soon be sick of my references and so, eventually, get on board.

The next week, one student came up to me and started a conversation about an advertisement for the new Australian Survivor.

Students listen and they want to connect.

Giving them a chance

In a recent research task, my students had to conduct an investigation into wages in different professions, with the aim of answering the question “Is Mr. Bayard worth the money?” I fully expected them to take full advantage and be mean to me. Who could pass up the chance to tell their new maths teacher that he is overpaid?

Students compared trends in wages over time and created line graphs to decide which jobs were more lucrative. Their sense of social injustice was also deeply triggered when they discovered a federal backbencher is entitled to more than $200,000 a year.

Turning to the key question of the lesson, to my surprise, the response from the students was almost universal. They believed that teachers do an important job, work really hard and deserve to be better paid.

Students can display their empathy and social engagement. We just have to give them a chance. And we can’t do that if we only discuss their challenges and the things that they can’t do. Working with student knowledge and skills is key. Relentlessly advocating with and for them is the way forward with any group, no matter how “challenging”. It is never perfect, but that doesn’t give us the excuse to stop working towards that aim.

I was lucky enough to work closely for a few days earlier this year with The Learner First‘s founder and CEO Joanne McEachen and her philosophy resonates deeply with me.

I believe that it can drive all teachers and how they frame their work with all children:

You are too good to not be better.

Although for the record, students do swear waaaaay too much in class.

But one step at a time…

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