Best-Case Thinking = Best-Case People

A motivational poster from a summer school classroom here at Teach For America's Los Angeles Institute.

A motivational poster from a summer school classroom here at Teach For America’s Los Angeles Institute.

I have just spent the past week in and out of the classrooms of pre-service teachers who are working with high school students in summer credit recovery programs here in Los Angeles and I am inspired. It is an annual professional highlight to work at Teach For America’s Los Angeles Summer Institute and this year is no exception. At our staff meeting tonight, Institute director Sarah Morrill shared the following quote:

“The way you see people is how you treat them and how you treat them is what they become.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I have never seen this quote before but it captures what I believe it takes to be an excellent teacher. We have to see the potential in every child – even when it is really, really hard – and then react to him or her as if they will inevitably become absolute best version of the person they will be in the future. Here are my ideas for maintaining a best-case self-fulfilling prophecy mindset with our students:

  • Remember our students are children: I work with high school students whose powers of manipulation and sense of right and wrong are fairly developed; however, I have now seen these students make such radical shifts from one year to the next (and even from one month or week to the next) that I know better to judge right away. High school students are children and they can change dramatically. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best. And in those moments when they have dropped the ball remind them of their ability to be better.
  • Focus on our students’ assets: At times the things our students lack can be staggering. It is easy to become focused on what they don’t have and while it is important to acknowledge potential gaps or shortfalls in academic performance as well as in support structures I found thinking positively about students to be more productive. Particularly when it comes to the child’s identity. The Search Institute has a really helpful list of 40 potential assets adolescents typically have such as parent support, a religious community, engagement in after school activities, cultural competence, and a sense of personal agency and power. This list can serve as a trigger for when we are having a hard time finding something positive.
  • Ask our students to share their achievements and sources of pride: Use student surveys to solicit this information. Specifically ask, “What is the achievement you are most proud of?” or “Who is the person in your life you most want to be like?” Take time every week to celebrate the “Good Things” that have happened in your students’ lives. This can be done by a simple shout out process at the beginning of class on Friday or giving students post-it notes to put on a “Good Things” board.
  • Meet with parents, guardians and others who truly love the child and look for opportunities to adopt their view of the student: When I struggle to connect to a particular student I’ll often work extra hard to build a connection with the child’s family. Likewise, I’ll seek out other teachers (or coaches) who have a positive relationship and ask about what works and doesn’t work in terms of motivating and connecting with the student.
  • Learn about your students hopes and dreams: Often time this comes from listening carefully to students in those moments before class, after class and when there is space to simply know each other as people. During my lessons I never have a spare moment to I have to search out this time during lunch or after school or during advisory or in between passing periods or during sports activities – make it work for you and your context.
  • This mindset also applies to colleagues and administrators! I have the mantra “Don’t judge competency or motivation” written on my planner because I always want to assume the people I work with love kids and have what it takes to create the best school possible. In turn, I’ll hope they assume the best of me and my intentions.

How do you see the best in your students?

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4 thoughts on “Best-Case Thinking = Best-Case People

  1. Jenny says:

    Awesome, Abby. In terms of focusing on student strenghts, I really learned from you (and your c/o 2011 colleagues) that starting meetings with students with a brief but genuine affirmation from each teacher can really help, especially when the meeting is targeting areas for student growth. Not only does it make me view the entire meeting and many future interactions through the lens of our collective love for the student, I think it also helps the student see the best version of him or herself. Encouraging students to have some self-compassion in times when they might feel like failures seems really useful if they are to bounce back and improve.

  2. “Meet with parents, guardians and others who truly love the child and look for opportunities to adopt their view of the student.” I LOVE this! I think we miss so much about our students when we fail to see more of them as they are as people and benefit from not just seeing them in their role as “student”. Thanks, Abby!

  3. Kate Cottrell says:

    I am going to read this blog whenever I’m getting into a negative funk at work. Thanks so much – this blog is wonderful!

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