Scrubbing Our Assumptions About Our Students

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won't come in.” ~ Alan Alda, actor

We all make a lot of assumptions. Generally speaking, our assumptions come from unexamined beliefs about the world around us. For example, if we really stopped to think about it, we might not assume that a very disruptive high school student is simply not interested in school. Without thinking about it, this is our first assumption. If she were interested, she would pay attention and try to succeed. It’s a simple correlation. But in that simple correlation, a whole value system opens up.

While it is impossible to rid ourselves of our assumptions (and we don’t think we’d want to, even if we could), it is part of an educator’s vocation to examine as deeply and habitually as possible the unexamined beliefs that might be preventing us from really “seeing” our students. The assumptions we make about our students can cause a lot of unintentional harm. Studies have shown that how teachers see their students has a significant influence on how students see themselves. Here are 4 important questions to help guide our inquiry:

  1. What assumptions am I making about my students' families? As teacher Mary Cowhey says, "Don't assume that students live in traditional families with both married heterosexual birth parents." When I speak, am I careful not to exclude non-traditional families? Do I talk about "mom and dad" or "parent or guardian"? Do I make room for all types of families in my classroom and curriculum?
  2. What assumptions am I making about my students' gender identity? About what's "appropriate" for certain gender roles? More parents are giving their children the freedom to explore their gender identity. We know from experience that children at an early age can feel frightened by violence and threats associated with being targeted as “gay.” Am I able to accept and welcome gender fluidity in my classroom? Do I promote diversity in gender roles? 
  3. What assumptions am I making about the kind of content my students' can handle? In the film, A Touch of Greatness, we see master teacher Albert Cullum introducing Shakespeare to kindergarten students who embrace this literature passionately, and 10-year-old children organizing campaigns in favor of Shaw over Sophocles (or vice versa). Building reverence in the early grades can help instill responsibility in the later grades and our assumptions about what our students can and cannot handle might be limiting the imaginative power of our lessons.
  4. What assumptions am I making about my students' values and experiences? Have I built in ways for students to share their perspectives and experiences? As I look around my classroom, how many stories do I see? What is the most significant thing that has happened to each of my students? Am I aware of what my own values are and how they influence my teaching?
The language we use, the way we divide students into groups, our curriculum, our body language, whom we call on, how we assign tasks, how we handle student outbursts and conflicts: All these actions send messages to our students about how we see them and who we think they are.

Each student can either thrive or wither in our classroom; by holding each student in the best possible light, we help that student thrive. Examining the beliefs that create our assumptions and drive our actions help immeasurably as we set forth to create an open atmosphere of truth, curiosity, respect, and learning in our classroom.

~ Marsha Rakestraw & Mary Pat Champeau

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