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.”
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 as those things as they are anything the teacher has or hasn’t done.