A Lie All Teachers Should Believe

What is the most empowering belief a teacher can have? 

That’s a question I was recently asked. A few answers came quickly to mind:

All students can learn.

I make a difference.

The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I believe the most empowering belief a teacher can have is a lie.

How, you might wonder, can teachers be expected to believe a lie when they know it’s a lie?

The same way we walk around believing all sorts of lies in spite of knowing the truth.

For example, we believe we’re better than others in all sorts of ways, even though our logical brains know how unlikely that is. Researchers have found that we rate ourselves above average on everything from our driving ability to our academic performance to the quality of our personal relationships.

We persist in the belief that more money will make us happier, even though increased happiness has not followed previous pay raises and despite the fact that we’re aware of the research showing the happiest people on the planet do not live in the richest nations and that after about $75,000 per year, money doesn’t increase happiness. 

Many of us still believe in the American Dream, that if you work hard enough you can be anything you want, even though we’re also aware that opportunities aren’t equal and the data show that fewer than 8 out of every 100 kids born into the lowest economic quintile will ever earn enough to place them in the uppermost quintile.

We believe that having children makes us happy. But when Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman asked working women in Texas to reconstruct their days and rank each of the activities on a happiness scale, they ranked spending time with their kids about the same as vacuuming. (Source) And then there’s the below graph, which shows how happy we are throughout our lives. It speaks for itself.

So there’s a pretty good precedent when it comes to believing stuff that just isn’t true.

Why do we do it?

I believe it’s because we have a choice between internalizing the truth or the lie, and internalizing the lie is often more likely to improve our circumstances.

There’s research to back up such a belief. Research by Carol Graham (and subsequently confirmed by others) found that individuals who were optimistic about their futures tended to have better health and employment outcomes. Graham writes:

“Those who believe in their futures tend to invest in those futures, while those who are consumed with stress, daily struggles, and a lack of hope, not only have less means to make such investments, but also have much less confidence that they will pay off.”

Read more here: Is The American Dream Really Dead?

The American Dream might be a fantasy, but believing in it makes it more likely you’ll achieve it.

Consider a child who dreams of becoming the next Tom Brady. For that matter, consider a six-year-old Tom Brady. Young Tom, as he was growing up, surely became aware, somewhere along the line, of the long odds of becoming an NFL player. The odds of him becoming an NFL quarterback were even slimmer. The odds of becoming the greatest quarterback of all time were so infinitesimally small that they could legitimately be considered impossible. Had Brady internalized those odds, he would have quit. None of us would know his name. Instead, Brady chose to believe the fantasy that a relatively unathletic mop-headed California kid could grow up to be the greatest signal caller in history.

We believe those lies that have the potential to benefit us. We lie to ourselves to protect our egos, to provide us with a sense of volition, to enable the illusion of control and self-determination.

Which is why the most empowering belief any teacher can have is this:

Everything that happens in my classroom is my responsibility.

Teachers who believe that lie believe that when things go poorly, it’s their fault.

When their students don’t get along, it’s because of the culture they’ve built.

When a routine isn’t followed, it’s on them.

When students don’t learn, it’s because they didn’t teach well enough.

Everything that happens in their classroom is their responsibility.

It’s a lie, as easily disproven as the American Dream.

In truth, things go poorly for many reasons outside the control of the teacher. Students sometimes act like jerks because all people sometimes act like jerks. Routines don’t get followed because humans are forgetful and easily distracted. Sometimes a student doesn’t learn because she hasn’t eaten, or he broke up with his boyfriend the night before, or she didn’t get any sleep because her baby sister cried all night, or because he just doesn’t give a damn about the Reconstruction Era (and really, can you blame him?).

But just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it. Like the American Dream, you’ll do better if you buy the lie.

Believing that everything that happens in your room is your responsibility makes you a better teacher, just like equating more money with greater happiness makes you a better American (can you imagine what would happen to our economy if everyone actually acted on the fact that more money doesn’t make us happier?)

Believing the lie makes you a better teacher because it compels you to try to solve problems. By attempting to solve problems, you might actually solve some of them. Things will improve for the simple reason that you believe you can improve things.

The Other Side of the Coin

The problem, of course, is the same as the lies about wealth, parenthood, and the American Dream. The lie, while it benefits each of us to believe it and act accordingly, can be used by others to harm us.

If the American Dream is possible, then people born into challenging circumstances have no one to blame but themselves for not making it.

If we believe that wealth ought to make us happier, then we assume there’s something wrong with wealthy people who are miserable.

If we believe that parenthood is the best thing that can happen to a person, then postpartum depression becomes an existential threat rather than a rational response.

Teachers should believe the lie that everything that happens in their classrooms is their responsibility. Such a belief will make them better teachers.

But the rest of us should show more understanding and recognize the truth: There are a number of things teachers can’t control, and failures in their classroom are as likely a result of those things as they are anything the teacher has or hasn’t done.

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

6 Replies to “A Lie All Teachers Should Believe”

  1. You raise only a single downside to believing a lie: that others will use our failures against us.
    If you don’t see how cripplingly awful it can be to believe that it’s ALL your responsibility, I envy you the teaching circumstances you’ve enjoyed.

    We do have to believe that we must always do something to improve the quality of the classroom and the success of our students. No one else will come and do that for us. We must give an acknowledgement that there are things out of our control, and we must push forward anyway. That’s just good mental health.

    1. Yes, the word for internalizing this belief is crippling. Especially when day after day after day, you fail at managing what you believe is your responsibility. Regardless of the actual fact that you can’t change all of the other circumstances surrounding a child’s life. This is a recipe for burnout and disillusionment. I usually agree with your posts, but not this one.

      1. I agree with you Brita. I also often agree with Murph’s post. But not this one. This is a recipe for burnout (or heart disease, mental illness, etc.) for sure!

    2. Agreed. Firmly believing this lie is the path to early retirement and problems with anxiety.

      I think that the belief that we can do better every year, with a new group and a new plan, and someday achieve some sort of pinnacle (which looks very different for different teachers but generally means students are consistently demonstrating engagement), is more “the dream”. Believing in absolute control over everything in the classroom isn’t even desirable.

  2. I read your message as – “know you are pressured by the lie and relax a little as believing the lie does have some virtue.” I am going to make a desk note about this to remind myself to chill a little when I’m trying to manage the lie! Thank you

  3. Since so little of what goes on in the classroom, let alone outside of the classroom, is truly within the teacher’s control, I can’t see holding teachers all that accountable for what comes out of the classroom–good or bad. The curriculum is usually determined by for-profit corporations – not only regarding what content is covered but also how the content is presented, even to the point of what the teacher should say to the students.

    Furthermore, students are tested ad nauseam via some standardized testing format often inconsistent with the content the teacher has covered, which brings about constant interruption to student learning and confusion over content.

    Teachers are also usually constricted with their classroom management, so a lot of time might be spent of coming up with district-approved time-consuming gimmicks to get the students to behave appropriately.

    With so little control in the teacher’s hands, why should the teacher feel responsible for his or her students’ results? When teachers are given true independence in what is taught and how it is taught and how the classroom environment is managed, then I will allow for the teacher to be held responsible and accountable for 25% of the outcome. 75% is still outside the teacher’s control due to outside forces.

    As for Tom Brady. I don’t know anything about his history, but I bet he could have cared less what the odds were of becoming a professional football player. I imagine that he was self-driven to become what he wanted to be, guided by desire and hard work, talent that showed itself to be obvious, recognized and nurtured for his talent, and fortunate enough to have been born in the U.S.A. and not the jungles of Brazil (as a random example).

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