Questioning Your Assumptions

16 Feb

It is important to reflect about the assumptions we make about our students.  It is inevitable; part of our job is to anticipate students’ thinking and their feelings, and to be successful at this task, we must sometimes assume.  But, as Margaret Berry Wilson explains in her thoughts below, it is also important to reflect about your assumptions and be sure that those assumptions are as accurate as possible.  She wrote this post for the New Year, but it is equally valuable now as it was then.



Questioning Your Assumptions

by Margaret Berry Wilson on December 28, 2011
students raising their hands to answer a question

Winter break can provide teachers a bit of time and space to reflect on how the school year has gone so far, and to decide what adjustments to make in January. This year, in addition to thinking about classroom routines and procedures, progress toward learning goals (for yourself and your students), and so forth, I encourage you to take some time to consider the assumptions you’ve made about your students.

We can’t help but make assumptions. We judge students continually based on what they say, how they behave, the way they respond when they are upset, and all sorts of other clues they give us each day in school. But sometimes the conclusions we draw are wrong.

I learned this lesson during my second year of teaching, when a gift from a first grader spurred me to question my assumptions about him. In December of that year, this student was one I wasn’t sure I was reaching. He was often quiet, sometimes sad, and easily frustrated. His frustration was often directed at me, as I tried to help him move forward socially and academically. Because he was so often angry at me, I assumed that he didn’t like me or school, and that my efforts to help him had failed so far.

However, after dismissal for winter break, this student lingered behind in our classroom and shyly pulled a small pinewood derby car from his backpack. He told me he wanted me to have it because it was the most special thing he had, and therefore, the best gift he could give me. I realized this was the car he’d told us he’d spent hours making with his mom, the one that had won his Boy Scout troop’s pinewood derby race. Of course, I tried to give it back, but I quickly sensed that I was hurting his feelings by doing so. So I kept the gift, which sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf to this day.

I was surprised by this child’s gift and by the feelings that were clearly attached to it. I had wrongly assumed that frustration was all he felt towards me. However, the truth was that his feelings were much more complicated. Even though it was frustrating for him, he understood that when I pushed him to do more, encouraged him to stick with tasks that were difficult, or held him to a high standard, I did so for his benefit. I had misjudged him.

Children and their behaviors are often more complicated than what appears on the surface. One might assume that a child who is fidgety and seems distracted during whole-group instruction isn’t paying attention, but sometimes it turns out that she can repeat what was said almost verbatim. Or it might seem that a child who frequently questions or refuses to follow your directions dislikes school. But questioning authority may be his way of figuring out the world. A child with a strong sense of justice and fairness can exhibit what seems like defiant behavior.

So, as you enjoy some well-deserved rest during this winter break, take some time to think about your students. Are there some you don’t know as well as others? Are there some whose relationships with you or their classmates seem troubled? What assumptions have you made about them? As you rejoin your class in the New Year, try to look at your students with fresh eyes. I’d love to hear what you find out.

4 Responses to “Questioning Your Assumptions”

  1. Karen Landsman February 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    When children come to the Library to choose a book, we often don’t know exactly what their reading level is, or why a particular child chooses the same book over and over again, or how important it is to them to be seen choosing a “chapter book” instead of a picture book. What we do know is that putting a book in the hands of a child with confidence assumes that there is an important reason for why they chose THAT particular book.

    Although we do “Reader’s Advisory” with many students to help them find the book that is “just right” for them, we try not to make assumptions. Asking a girl “How about a princess book?” or a boy “Wouldn’t you like a Star Wars book?” is not our job. Reader’s Advisory means letting the student tell us about their likes/dislikes and what type of book they find interesting before leading them in the right direction to choose their own book. This is not always easy with young ones, but oh so important in helping them develop a lifelong love of reading.

  2. Maryann February 18, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    This article reminds me of a story I read in “Chicken Soup…for Teachers”- very powerful book- like this article- filled with moving emotional testimonies that make me think over and over again about how important it is to mold and shape these little lives in a delicate way – If you enjoyed this article- stop by my room and borrow “Chicken Soup for Teachers” – I promise it will be an inspiring read over Winter Break!

    Years ago Bob Supernaunt spoke at the our District Wide welcome back to school gathering in auburn – His message that year- BUILD relationships with your students and their families- In the maddness of CCSS – Assessments and charting Data- this article reminded me we are working with God’s most precious gifts- his children! AMEN to creating more moments like the one in this article- these memories are what define us and remind us of how – feeling loved goes a LONG way.

    Underhill is a better place because of its caring and loving STAFF!

  3. Ralene St. Pierre February 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    As the AP I am able to talk one-on-one to students who end up in my office. I often find the series of events that lands them in the office usually starts with misunderstandings about a circumstance or comment by a peer, or a teacher. Classroom teachers often do not have the time for confidential conversations with students to reach understanding, which leads to assumptions. It is important to keep an open mind. Teachers who assume the best OF their students will get the best FROM their students.

  4. Mary Lou Donahoe February 16, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    I love this article! Children communicate with us in so many settled ways. We get so task oriented that we forget or miss the settled cues…or not so settled cues they send us. Culture, whether it is because we are from another country, different states within the U. S. and within our families play a big role. Culture is not just limited to being from different continent or country. Children also grow-up and develop through-out the school year and a child that was more compliant early in the year may not be so now. That may be a good sign, of their ability to think more critically. They also grow up and we need to be more confident as teacher realizing we impact their growth twofold academic and emotional. Children have developmental peaks and valleys and that is developmentally normal. It is very important to look at the whole person and their developmental stages at all times.

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