6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers


We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.


Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”


Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.


National Association of Elementary School Principals

Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017

Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.

A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.

The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:

  1. Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
  2. Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
  3. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.

There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)

In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.

Student Perception

Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”

Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.

Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”

Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”

Added Pressures

Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.

Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.

Postsecondary Enrollment

All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.

Enrollment in Education Programs

In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.

Postsecondary Completion

The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.

Entering the Workforce

Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certified to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certifications may reflect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.

Teacher Retention

Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.

The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to  “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.

“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”

The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”

No Easy Fix

Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.

  1. In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
  2. The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
  3. The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.


“The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers” by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, Educational Researcher 45, no. 7 (2016)

“The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (2016)

“Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, The Education Trust (2016)

These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”

There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.

What Happens When Students Notice Racial Bias

(CNN)Children rarely forget the moment when a teacher might inadvertently display a racial bias.

Sara Sidner, CNN’s Los Angeles-based national and international correspondent, remembers sitting in class as a child while her teacher stood and starting taking roll, marking down the race of each student in the room.
“He was trying to figure out whether I was black or white, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know what; you’re a smart kid; I’m going to check white,’ ” said Sidner, whose mother is a white British woman and whose father is African-American.
“It definitely had an impact on me,” she said. “It made me want to fight back and say, ‘I can be black and smart. Those are not separate entities. Those are not different things.’ “
It turns out that when black and Latino middle school students notice racial bias at school, they are more likely to lose trust in their teachers and other authority figures, according to a study published in the journal Child Development this week.
The study also showed how establishing trust in their teachers can have life-long consequences for middle school students, even making a significant difference in their likelihood of attending college, said Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.
“There’s this kind of hidden construct of trust that teachers and schools are influencing all the time and maybe not knowing it, and they have these far-off, far-flung consequences, like college enrollment,” Cohen said.
“A lot of the things that happen to us during our teenage years end up sticking with us. A disproportionate number of our memories, for instance, come from our teenage years. If you suffer a depressive episode in your teen years, you’re more likely to suffer one later on in adulthood,” he said. “This developmental stage is important.”

Trust linked to success in school

The study involved 277 middle school students in Connecticut who were surveyed twice yearly about their perceptions of school from sixth to eighth grade, and then were tracked to indicate whether they enrolled in a four-year college after high school. About half of the students were white, and about half were black. Their teachers were white.
The researchers assessed each student’s trust in school by including statements in the survey such as “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school” or “students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults.” The students could select whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement.
The survey results showed that while the trust students had in their teachers declined from sixth to eighth grade overall, that trust plunged faster for black students and had a more significant association with their likelihood of attending college.
Among black students, when their trust in school declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 43%, but when their trust increased, it was about 64%, said David Yeager, a faculty research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center and a co-author of the study. So, there was a difference of 21 percentage points.
Among white students, when their trust declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 54%. When trust increased, college enrollment was about 62%. So, there was a difference of only 8 percentage points, Yeager said.
The researchers also surveyed 206 middle school students in Colorado over a one-year period. About half of the students were white, and about half were Latino. Their teachers were white.
The surveys showed that a loss of trust was more significant among the Latino students and emerged more prominently in the seventh grade.
But the study has some limitations.
“I would love to see researchers try to replicate that sort of ‘trust gap’ in other schools and see if they get it. We only looked at two schools,” Cohen said.
“How general it is, is a question. I think it’s general for two reasons. One is, it does match with other research,” he said. “The second reason is that these two schools, they’re pretty different. They’re from different regions in the United States. One is the Mountain West; one’s in Connecticut.”

Is there a flaw in the education system?

Middle school, a time when adolescents are carving out their identities, may be when a student needs encouragement from a trustworthy authority figure the most.
Yet, in most middle schools, such encouragement is lacking — and that might be because standardized exams are higher-stakes starting around then, said Chris Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.”
“It’s part of elementary school practice for young people to feel like the teachers love them and to feel as though, ‘you’re valuable. You’re smart.’ It’s almost like part of the discourse in elementary education,” said Emdin, who was not involved in the new study.
“But when you get to middle and high school, the focus becomes less on the social and emotional development of the learner and more of an emphasis on the content area,” he said. “What’s flawed about the system is that, at the point where youth are most vulnerable in carving out their identities is the point where teachers are least prepared to help in developing trust and confidence. So it’s at that age that we need to sort of really infuse practices that let kids know how much they are loved and how brilliant they are.”
Once a teacher affirms a child’s abilities, that child is more likely not only to believe in his or her own abilities but to trust that teacher, Emdin said.
He added that students, especially those of color, thrive when they feel as if a teacher cares about them, is consistent in what and how they are teaching, and is someone students can trust.
“For young people, care, consistency and trust are the anchor of being engaged academically. If any of those three things are missing, then you can’t engage them,” Emdin said.
“So teachers have to be able to exhibit care, and they have to be consistent in the things that they tell young people,” he said. “If that happens, then young people feel like they can be trusted, and then that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

‘We can have more influence than we think’

For the new study, researchers also tested whether an intervention could improve trust in the teacher-student relationship.
At the same school in Connecticut where the researchers assessed a trust gap, 88 white and black seventh-graders were given a handwritten letter from their teacher, along with feedback comments on an assignment they completed.
Half of the students received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”
The other half received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
The students and the teacher were unaware of who received which type of letter.
The researchers found that after receiving the more encouraging letter about “high expectations,” fewer black students had discipline issues the following year than those who received the other letter, and they were more likely to attend a four-year college. There were no significant associations found between the letter and behavior or college enrollment among the white students.
However, Cohen said the results of this small experiment should not be misconstrued to suggest that giving a nice note to a student will increase their chances of going to college.
Join the conversation”That’s not the message. The message should be that we can have more influence than we think, through timely acts that recognize and validate kids’ potential,” Cohen said.
“The note that we gave kids was one example of this, and it worked, in this place, in this time, in this school,” he said. “Whether it would work in another school, I don’t know. I think it would depend. It’s not a magic bullet. The school where we used this note was one where the kids had the resources they needed to learn and to grow.”

Tips to help teachers build trust

Teacher and student relationships are improved when teachers make an effort to better understand a student’s life both in and outside of school, said Richard Milner, a professor of education and endowed chair of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the new study.
Based on research he has conducted in middle and high schools, Milner offered the following advice on how to build, cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with students:
  • Develop assignments that allow students to share aspects of their lives inside and outside of school.
  • Build powerful discussion opportunities for students to share their point of view across all subject areas.
  • Attend some extracurricular activities of students, such as a school or community play, sporting event or band concert.
  • Visit local community sites of students, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons or community centers.
  • Interview or talk directly to students themselves, rather than talking about them.

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students – the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these “low performers” saw my class. What’s most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day – the first day of school.

I’m first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher’s perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Now, let’s consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

“I’m so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher’s going to hate me because I’m so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me.”

“But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won’t be so bad!”

Walking in on the first day:

“There’s a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we’re all in the front. I’m stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

“I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past, because in this class, it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I’m so excited to start this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll move together.”

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn’t let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids… and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my “low performer” group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis… I’m not.

Teaching the Teachers

Teaching the teachers

Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born

TO THE 11- and 12-year-olds in his maths class, Jimmy Cavanagh seems like a born teacher. He is warm but firm. His voice is strong. Correct answers make him smile. And yet it is not his pep that explains why his pupils at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, can expect to go to university, despite 80% of their families needing help to pay for school meals.

Mr Cavanagh is the product of a new way of training teachers. Rather than spending their time musing on the meaning of education, he and his peers have been drilled in the craft of the classroom. Their dozens of honed techniques cover everything from discipline to making sure all children are thinking hard. Not a second is wasted. North Star teachers may seem naturals. They are anything but.

Like many of his North Star colleagues are or have been, Mr Cavanagh is enrolled at the Relay Graduate School of Education. Along with similar institutions around the world, Relay is applying lessons from cognitive science, medical education and sports training to the business of supplying better teachers. Like doctors on the wards of teaching hospitals, its students often train at excellent institutions, learning from experienced high-calibre peers. Their technique is calibrated, practised, coached and relentlessly assessed like that of a top-flight athlete. Jamey Verrilli, who runs Relay’s Newark branch (there are seven others), says the approach shows teaching for what it is: not an innate gift, nor a refuge for those who, as the old saw has it, “can’t do”, but “an incredibly intricate, complex and beautiful craft”.

Hello, Mr Chips

There can be few crafts more necessary. Many factors shape a child’s success, but in schools nothing matters as much as the quality of teaching. In a study updated last year, John Hattie of the University of Melbourne crunched the results of more than 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250m pupils. He found that aspects of schools that parents care about a lot, such as class sizes, uniforms and streaming by ability, make little or no difference to whether children learn (see chart). What matters is “teacher expertise”. All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has estimated that during an academic year pupils taught by teachers at the 90th percentile for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material. Those taught by teachers at the 10th percentile learn half a year’s worth. Similar results have been found in countries from Britain to Ecuador. “No other attribute of schools comes close to having this much influence on student achievement,” he says.

Rich families find it easier to compensate for bad teachers, so good teaching helps poor kids the most. Having a high-quality teacher in primary school could “substantially offset” the influence of poverty on school test scores, according to a paper co-authored by Mr Hanushek. Thomas Kane of Harvard University estimates that if African-American children were all taught by the top 25% of teachers, the gap between blacks and whites would close within eight years. He adds that if the average American teacher were as good as those at the top quartile the gap in test scores between America and Asian countries would be closed within four years.

Such studies emphasise the power of good teaching. But a question has dogged policymakers: are great teachers born or made? Prejudices played out in popular culture suggest the former. Bad teachers are portrayed as lazy and kid-hating. Edna Krabappel of “The Simpsons” treats lessons as obstacles to cigarette breaks. Good and inspiring teachers, meanwhile, such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s marine-turned-educator in “Dangerous Minds” (pictured), or J.K. Rowling’s Minerva McGonagall, are portrayed as endowed with supernatural gifts (literally so, in the case of the head of Gryffindor). In 2011 a survey of attitudes to education found that such portrayals reflect what people believe: 70% of Americans thought the ability to teach was more the result of innate talent than training.

Elizabeth Green, the author of “Building A Better Teacher”, calls this the “myth of the natural-born teacher”. Such a belief makes finding a good teacher like panning for gold: get rid of all those that don’t cut it; keep the shiny ones. This is in part why, for the past two decades, increasing the “accountability” of teachers has been a priority for educational reformers.

There is a good deal of sense in this. In cities such as Washington, DC, performance-related pay and (more important) dismissing the worst teachers have boosted test scores. But relying on hiring and firing without addressing the ways that teachers actually teach is unlikely to work. Education-policy wonks have neglected what one of them once called the “black box of the production process” and others might call “the classroom”. Open that black box, and two important truths pop out. A fair chunk of what teachers (and others) believe about teaching is wrong. And ways of teaching better—often much better—can be learned. Grit can become gold.


In 2014 Rob Coe of Durham University, in England, noted in a report on what makes great teaching that many commonly used classroom techniques do not work. Unearned praise, grouping by ability and accepting or encouraging children’s different “learning styles” are widely espoused but bad ideas. So too is the notion that pupils can discover complex ideas all by themselves. Teachers must impart knowledge and critical thinking.

Those who do so embody six aspects of great teaching, as identified by Mr Coe. The first and second concern their motives and how they get on with their peers. The third and fourth involve using time well, fostering good behaviour and high expectations. Most important, though, are the fifth and sixth aspects, high-quality instruction and so-called “pedagogical content knowledge”—a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft. Its essence is defined by Charles Chew, one of Singapore’s “principal master teachers”, an elite group that guides the island’s schools: “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”

Branches of the learning tree

Teachers like Mr Chew ask probing questions of all students. They assign short writing tasks that get children thinking and allow teachers to check for progress. Their classes are planned—with a clear sense of the goal and how to reach it—and teacher-led but interactive. They anticipate errors, such as the tendency to mix up remainders and decimals. They space out and vary ways in which children practise things, cognitive science having shown that this aids long-term retention.

These techniques work. In a report published in February the OECD found a link between the use of such “cognitive activation” strategies and high test scores among its club of mostly rich countries. The use of memorisation or pupil-led learning was common among laggards. A recent study by David Reynolds compared maths teaching in Nanjing and Southampton, where he works. It found that in China, “whole-class interaction” was used 72% of the time, compared with only 24% in England. Earlier studies by James Stigler, a psychologist at UCLA, found that American classrooms rang to the sound of “what” questions. In Japan teachers asked more “why” and “how” questions that check students understand what they are learning.

But a better awareness of how to teach will not on its own lead to great teaching. According to Marie Hamer, the head of initial teacher training at Ark, a group of English schools: “Too often teachers are told what to improve, but not given clear guidance on how to make that change.” The new types of training used at Relay and elsewhere are intended to address that.

David Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, in Baltimore, characterises many of America’s teacher-training institutions as “sclerotic”. It can be easier to earn a teaching qualification than to make the grades American colleges require of their athletes. According to Mr Hattie none of Australia’s 450 education training programmes has ever had to prove its impact—nor has any ever had its accreditation removed. Some countries are much more selective. Winning acceptance to take an education degree in Finland is about as competitive as getting into MIT. But even in Finland, teachers are not typically to be found in the top third of graduates for numeracy or literacy skills.

In America and Britain training has been heavy on theory and light on classroom practice. Rod Lucero of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), a body representing more than half of the country’s teacher-training providers, says that most courses have a classroom placement. But he concedes that it falls short of “clinical practice”. After finishing an undergraduate degree in education “I didn’t feel I was anywhere near ready,” says Jazmine Wheeler, now a first-year student at the Sposato Graduate School of Education, a college which grew out of the Match charter schools in Boston.

This fits with a pattern Mr Kane’s research reveals to be “almost constant”: new teachers lack classroom management and instruction skills. As a result they struggle at first before improving over the subsequent three to five years. The new teaching schools believe that those skills which teachers now pick up haphazardly can be systematically imparted in advance. “Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients,” Mr Kane notes.

“We have thought a lot about how to teach 22-year-olds,” says Scott McCue, who runs Sposato. He and his colleagues have crunched good teaching into a “taxonomy” of things to do and say. “Of the 5,000 or so things that go into amazing teaching,” says Orin Gutlerner, Sposato’s founding director, “we want to make sure you can do the most important 250.”

The curriculum of the new schools is influenced by people like Doug Lemov. A former English teacher and the founder of a school in Boston, Mr Lemov used test-score data to identify some of the best teachers in America. After visiting them and analysing videos of their classes to find out precisely what they did, he created a list of 62 techniques. Many involve the basics of getting pupils’ attention. “Threshold” has teachers meeting pupils at the door; “strong voice” explains that the most effective teachers stand still when talking, use a formal register, deploy an economy of language and do not finish their sentences until they have their classes’ full attention.

But most of Mr Lemov’s techniques are meant to increase the number of pupils in a class who are thinking and the amount of time that they do so. Techniques such as his “cold call” and “turn and talk”, where pupils have to explain their thoughts quickly to a peer, give the kinds of cognitive workouts common in classrooms in Shanghai and Singapore, which regularly top international comparisons.

Trainees at Sposato undertake residencies at Match schools. They spend 20 hours per week studying and practising, and 40-50 tutoring or assisting teachers. Mr Gutlerner says that the most powerful predictor of residents’ success is how well they respond to the feedback they get after classes.

This new approach resembles in some ways the more collective ethos seen in the best Asian schools. Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback. Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol says teaching is still “a closed-door profession”, adding that teaching unions have made it hard for observers to take notes in classes. Pupils suffer as a result, says Pasi Sahlberg, a former senior official at Finland’s education department. He attributes much of his country’s success to Finnish teachers’ culture of collaboration.

Mr Schneebly needs his feedback

As well as being isolated, teachers lack well defined ways of getting better. Mr Gutlerner points out that teaching, alone among the professions, asks the same of novices as of 20-year veterans. Much of what passes for “professional development” is woeful, as are the systems for assessing it. In 2011 a study in England found that only 1% of training courses enabled teachers to turn bad practice into good teaching. The story in America is similar. This is not for want of cash. The New Teacher Project, a group that helps cities recruit teachers, estimates that in some parts of America schools shell out about $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development, 4-15 times as much as is spent in other sectors.

The New Teacher Project suggests that after the burst of improvement at the start of their careers teachers rarely get a great deal better. This may, in part, be because they do not know they need to get better. Three out of five low-performing teachers in America think they are doing a great job. Overconfidence is common elsewhere: nine out of ten teachers in the OECD say they are well prepared. Teachers in England congratulate themselves on their use of cognitive-activation strategies, despite the fact that pupil surveys suggest they rely more on rote learning than teachers almost everywhere else.

It need not be this way. In a vast study published in March, Roland Fryer of Harvard University found that “managed professional development”, where teachers receive precise instruction together with specific, regular feedback under the mentorship of a lead teacher, had large positive effects. Matthew Kraft and John Papay, of Harvard and Brown universities, have found that teachers in the best quarter of schools ranked by their levels of support improved by 38% more over a decade than those in the lowest quarter.

Such environments are present in schools such as Match and North Star—and in areas such as Shanghai and Singapore. Getting the incentives right helps. In Shanghai teachers will not be promoted unless they can prove they are collaborative. Their mentors will not be promoted unless they can show that their student-teachers improve. It helps to have time. Teachers in Shanghai teach for only 10-12 hours a week, less than half the American average of 27 hours.

No dark sarcasm

In many countries the way to get ahead in a school is to move into management. Mr Fryer says that American school districts “pay people in inverse proportion to the value they add”. District superintendents make more money than teachers although their impact on pupils’ lives is less. Singapore has a separate career track for teachers, so that the best do not leave the classroom. Australia may soon follow suit.

The new models of teacher training that will start those careers have yet to be thoroughly evaluated. Early evidence is encouraging, however. Relay and Sposato both make their trainees’ graduation dependent on improved outcomes for students. A blind evaluation that Relay undertook of its teachers rated them as higher than average, especially in classroom management. At Ark, in England, recent graduates are seen by the schools that have hired them as among the best cohorts that they have received.

Mr Steiner notes, though, that it is not yet clear whether these new teachers are “school-proof”: effective in schools that lack the intense culture of feedback and practice of places like Match. This is a big caveat: across the OECD two-thirds of teachers believe their schools to be hostile to innovation.

If the new approaches can be made to work at scale, that should change. Relay will be in 12 cities by next academic year, training 2,000 teachers and 400 head teachers, including those from government-run schools. This year AACTE launched its own commission investigating ways in which its colleges could move to a similar model. In England Matthew Hood, an entrepreneurial assistant head teacher, has plans for a Relay-like “Institute for Advanced Teaching”.

This way, reformers hope, they can finally improve education on a large scale. Until now, the job of the teacher has been comparatively neglected, with all the focus on structural changes. But disruptions to school systems are irrelevant if they do not change how and what children learn. For that, what matters is what teachers do and think. The answer, after all, was in the classroom.

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?

Do teacher expectations matter?

Researchers, policymakers, and education professionals alike tend to agree that it is important for teachers to believe in their students and to maintain high expectations about their students’ educational attainment. This is a key motivation underlying arguments to diversify the teaching workforce. However, little research has been able to show whether or not teacher expectations actually matter for student outcomes outside of specific experimental settings.

In a new IZA Discussion Paper, my co-authors and I demonstrate that teacher expectations do matter in that they have a causal impact on students’ educational attainment. We also show evidence that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in ways that put black students at a disadvantage.

…teacher expectations do matter in that they have a causal impact on students’ educational attainment. We also show evidence that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in ways that put black students at a disadvantage.

To understand our research, it is helpful to start with a simple observation: teacher expectations tend to line up with student outcomes. In other words, teachers tend to report high educational expectations for students who end up attaining college degrees.

This correlation could arise for two reasons. One possibility is that teachers accurately predict which students will be successful in school and which students won’t. If so, teacher expectations don’t necessarily matter for student outcomes, but are simply accurate forecasts.

Another possibility is that teacher expectations have a causal impact on student outcomes, functioning like self-fulfilling prophecies. In this case, high expectations about a student could translate into more school and teacher resources being devoted to the student or more effort on the part of the student. As a result, the student might achieve more, and in turn, the original expectations align with the student’s ultimate educational attainment. A bleak picture forms if we consider the opposite case: teachers could have negatively biased expectations about a given student, which could lead to fewer resources being devoted to the student and/or the student internalizing these low expectations and exerting less effort, with the ultimate outcome of lower educational attainment.

Negative teacher biases functioning as self-fulfilling prophecies are particularly concerning if beliefs are negatively biased for certain groups of students, e.g., racial minorities. In fact, in earlier research, my co-author and I discovered a striking pattern regarding teacher expectations. If a black and a white teacher are asked to report their expectations regarding the ultimate educational attainment of a white student, they tend to agree. However, if a black and a white teacher both form expectations about a particular black student, their answers diverge quite a bit.  The black teacher tends to have far higher expectations than the white teacher.

This pattern raises two important questions, which our current researchaddresses:

  • First, if black and white teachers disagree about the same black student’s educational potential, which teacher is more accurate? Perhaps black teachers are too optimistic in their expectations. Alternatively, white teachers may be too pessimistic. It is worth mentioning, moreover, that pessimism would not necessarily mean that white teachers are racist. It may be that white teachers, when viewing the challenges that some black students face, simply over-estimate how these challenges will undermine students’ chances of finishing college, for example. In other words, students may be hurt because teachers with good intentions form low expectations.
  • The second question is whether these differences in expectations matter for student outcomes. In other words, it may be the case that some teachers have unduly high or low expectations regarding some students, but that these biases in expectations do not really affect student outcomes.

Our current research addresses these two questions. In particular, we examine the causal impact of teacher expectations on student outcomes. We examine nationally representative data of about 6,000 tenth grade students in 2002. For each student, teachers are asked how far they expect the child to go in school. Responses include less than high school, high school degree, some college, college completion, and masters or PhD. We focus on whether teachers expect college or more. Moreover, these students are followed into early adulthood, which means we know whether teacher expectations align with students’ educational attainment as of 2012.

We show that teacher expectations largely do align with student outcomes. To disentangle whether this reflects accurate forecasts versus self-fulfilling prophecies, our study relies on a unique feature of these data: two teachers evaluate each student. This allows us to harness teacher disagreements: when two teachers disagree about how far a student will go in school, at least one of them is objectively wrong. We then see if this “wrong-ness” affects student outcomes. [1]


We find that teacher expectations matter. To put this into perspective, if a student is randomly assigned to a teacher whose expectations are 40 percent higher, which is the average difference in expectations faced by black and white students in the sample, the student becomes 7 percent more likely to complete a four-year college degree. This is a nontrivial effect size for a secondary-school intervention. To put this effect in perspective, it is similar in magnitude to the impact of fairly large  class-size reductionsin early elementary grades and improved teacher quality in late elementary grades on college completion. We also show that teacher disagreements tend to occur on the some-college versus college-degree dimension. This appears to be a large—and largely overlooked—source of educational disparities between blacks and whites, as recent researchshows that the socio-economic trajectories of college dropouts more closely resemble the trajectories of high-school graduates than those of college graduates.

Next, we dig deeper into the basic finding that black teachers have higher expectations for black students than do white teachers. We find that most teachers, across the board, are optimistic.  They tend to expect college degrees for far more students than ultimately obtain them. However, teachers are less optimistic about black students. An interesting nuance, therefore, is that white teachers are more accurate when forming expectations about black students because they tend to be less optimistic about them. However, since higher expectations lead to better outcomes, “accuracy’’ in this case amounts to a selective lack of optimism that puts black students at a disadvantage.

In conclusion, our study offers causal evidence that teacher expectations matter. Negative teacher biases can function like self-fulfilling prophecies that affect college-going. Moreover, we find that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in a way that puts black students at a disadvantage, exacerbating racial achievement gaps. Our results also identify differences in how black and white teachers form expectations as one possible mechanism underlying the well-known finding that black students seem to perform better when they have black teachers. Together, our findings suggest that efforts to combat biases (e.g., hiring more black teacher or “de-biasing” white teachers) could prove helpful in reducing racial educational attainment gaps.



[1] Much of the paper is concerned with developing an empirical approach to disentangle accurate forecasts from self-fulfilling prophecies.  The aim is to isolate changes in teachers’ expectations for reasons that should not matter for college-going on their own, for example, chance positive or negative encounters.  We exploit teacher disagreements to accomplish this. Intuitively, our empirical approach consists of three steps.  First, we use one teacher’s expectations to “control for” all the important factors about a student that would influence college going. Second, we assess whether the second teacher’s expectations, which are higher or lower when the two teachers disagree, have any effect on the educational outcome via “self-fulfilling prophecies”.  A third and crucial step is to assess whether such disagreements are random, e.g., due to chance positive or negative encounters with the student.  Such encounters could change a teacher’s expectations for reasons that arguably are not important for college-going only affect students through the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecies.