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Stop Calling Me “Low” – Changing Our Thoughts Around Academic Performance

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Teachers have a wide variety of students in their classrooms. We all know that every child’s academic performance is different, and we certainly don’t have classes full of children who all learn at the same level or rate.

In fact, we probably have some students who seem to catch on quickly and excel. We also likely have some students who can get a new concept after a few tries. Finally, we have students who maybe just don’t seem to get it at all. Maybe they are even “behind.”

While knowing exactly where our students are with their academic performance is a must for a teacher – are we boxing them (and ourselves) in with unintentional labels?

Are we unintentionally labeling kids' academic performance and boxing them (and ourselves!) in? What happens when our own thoughts start to impact our teaching?

First, let’s look at phrases that every teacher has either heard a form of or said themselves (raises hand – I have said them in the past and heard them.)

“oh yes, she is one of my high kids.”

“Him? Yeah he does pretty well. Pretty middle of the road- right on track.”

“These guys are my low kids – they can’t do that.”

Have you ever heard that kind of talk before? Maybe not the exact wording – but I am assuming you have heard kids spoken about in the terms “high, medium, and low” before when speaking on their academic performance.

I do not think teachers mean anything negative when saying these things – I really don’t. I also don’t mean to say teachers go around talking about their students – I don’t think we do and I think most teachers are very professional. I am speaking in the sense of in meetings, talking or thinking these phrases to yourself, or speaking with a partner teacher, etc.

I understand that thinking in terms of “high, medium, and low” is a quick way to classify your students and I know you certainly (I hope!) aren’t saying this to the students themselves.

However, is putting labels on them in your own head causing a problem without you realizing it?

It was for me.

Last year I started really making it a goal for myself to never think of my kids in those terms or speak of them in those terms. It actually is hard now to hear other people speak of their students in that way, even though I know they have best intentions.

Here’s why I have made the change: 

When I kept classifying students as “high,” I realized I gave them the most challenge and confidence in themselves. They could do it! I could challenge them, and because I had confidence in them, they had confidence in themselves. Whether you think you show it or hide it, kids know if you believe they can do something.

Likewise, when I classified my students as “low,” I was always a little more cautious with them. Making sure I was challenging them, but not pushing too hard because in my head they “weren’t there yet.” I never wanted them to see this of course and thought I did a great job at differentiating and reaching them. However, I noticed their motivation was lacking – and not just because things were hard for them. Something was missing, and I think it started with me. I needed to find their strengths and use them – and banish the thoughts that said they “couldn’t.”

How I am trying to think instead this year: 

I am trying to stop grouping my kids and really see them as individuals. I know we all do that as teachers, but for me this year my goal is to really push myself to do this even more. Instead of saying “he is low” to myself, I am trying to think things like “he can’t count to 10, no, but he is an amazing storyteller through his pictures! How can I use this strength to help him learn?

When I set higher goals for my “low” students and change my train of thought in how I can help them achieve their goals, my excitement and motivation rubs off on them, and they start believing in themselves even more. When I focus on their strengths, while still being aware of what they need, they are far more motivated to learn and I am far more motivated to teach them.

I know that we focus on our kids’ strengths. I know that each of you reading this know and love each of your students and only want the best for them. I just ask us all as educators to think about that word “low” and see if perhaps there is a better word, or maybe no word at all.

After all, I would hate to to be summed up in only one word.

You may also want to read…. 

Teacher Guilt- What it is and How to Get Rid of it. 

7 Ways to Manage Teacher Stress

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Alex. I enjoyed your post. It comes down to mindset theory for both the teacher and the student I think. We need to create that growth mindset in our students from early on, don’t we? I work with high school and college aged students as an academic coach. I can tell you that, often very quickly, I can tell which ones are coming to me with a fixed mindset from a long history of what you speak of here. Excellent job making us take a look at how we speak early on and how it can affect motivation, learning performance and mindset.

    1. Hi Jennifer! I totally agree with you about it coming down to mindset! This past summer I read the book Mindset and it was such a fabulous read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts from a viewpoint of teaching older students, I completely agree that it starts young but you can see the effect of it in later years.

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