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The Magic of Believing in Your Students

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I read an article a few months ago that provided some useful insights into causes of the current achievement gap (which is essentially the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results).  The article also offered up a few solutions to help remedy some of the biggest issues related to the achievement gap.   One particular issue really caught my immediate attention above all others.  I suppose it especially stood out to me because it is something that all teachers have the ability to do, and because it appears as something that could be easily solved by educators who take immediate action.

The Impact of Expectations

So what was this unnerving and seemingly avoidable contributor to the achievement gap that caught my eye?  It was the fact that vast amounts of students go through the education system year after year, and fail to achieve comparable levels of school success partly because their teacher secretly lacked a belief in their ability to perform at the same levels of their peers.  Now I know this one issue is not the end-all-be-all to closing the achievement gap.  However, it is the one issue that can be addressed by every teacher, everywhere, with a little conscious effort if they decide to.  My confidence in each educator’s ability to make such an impact stems from a 2008 study by William Woolston of Stanford University.  Woolston’s research discovered that teacher expectations do in fact correlate with future scholastic performance.  This means that having a type of optimism or belief in your student’s abilities to succeed and do well in their class(es), positively impacts your student’s actual ability to succeed and do well.

The Pygmalion Effect

The results of Woolston’s study is very similar to the research done by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968, who coined the theory known as the Pygmalion Effect. Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s original research focused on an experiment conducted at an elementary school.  Their experiment required students to take intelligence pre-tests.  After these pre-tests, the teachers were provided with the names of the 20% of the students at the school who demonstrated the most potential for intellectual growth, and who would most likely succeed academically in the near future.  A part of the experiment was to ensure that the teachers were not made aware that the names of those “high scoring” students were randomly selected, and were not actually based on the results of the initial intelligence tests given.  When tests were given to the students months later, their actual experiment results showed that those 20% of students who were randomly selected, but whom the teachers perceived as smarter and expected to do better, actually did better by having higher scores.

With Awareness Change is Possible

With this research at hand and available to all, it boggles my mind, that some teacher’s low expectations for their students are still a contributing factor in the widening of the achievement gap.  I always thought that teachers were supposed to be objective in their expectations of students.  I was also under the impression that a primary goal of each teacher is to ensure that they arm every one of their students with tools to optimize their eventual success and reach their potential.  I haven’t lost hope in the fact that teachers truly are agents of positive change.  I just think it is imperative that every teacher is made aware of how powerful their expectations are for influencing the success of their students.  My hope is that one day every teacher would be made aware of the Pygmalion Effect, and teach their students with it in mind.

The Magic of Believing in Your Students

There is truly something magical about teachers who believe in what they are doing as a force for positive change.  The teachers who believe in themselves, usually believe in the students they are teaching.  I’ve experienced that the will for students to aspire and achieve springs from the belief that they can.  It seems there is no one (aside from a student’s parents) better suited for the task of helping students believe in themselves more than their teacher.  As a teacher, you have the power to impact your students’ future success, and by extension, you have the ability to influence for the better, our society as a whole.  You just have to believe in your students.

So how will you go about ensuring high expectations for all of your students?


Woolston, W. (2008) Do Great Expectations Matter? The Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice, Stanford University.

Rosenthal, R, & Jacobsen. L (1968)  Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

“The world we live in will be either better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse.” – Paulo Coelho



by Nathan Lee

Nathan holds an MBA, has blogged on entrepreneurship, leadership, and business for the past decade, has served in a leadership role for one of the largest Non-Profit Organizations within the Financial Education Industry, and has a sincere passion for education and inspiring potential.

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