— Jeanne M. Slattery
Yesterday my freshmen and I were talking about optimism, pessimism, and the role of thinking: “No one can make you feel any particular thing without your permission. It’s your thoughts that make you feel a particular way.” Their eyes were wide as I shared that I had gotten angry when my college boyfriend gave me large, beautiful diamond earrings — until they learned that I don’t like diamonds and had told him that. He didn’t listen.
Still, this idea that no one can make them feel anything is one that they only tentatively believe — and primarily about other people. Many of my students are also in a class where they’ve heard Professor X say that they won’t be successful, that they won’t learn this material, that they will be back. (I don’t know that this is what Professor X says, but this is what they hear.) “Professor X makes me want to give up.” “I don’t even want to go to class.”
Some students, however, note that they work harder in such situations. I’m not sure I believe them, but the mind is a powerful organ that interprets and responds to information based on its worldview. Did they already believe they could be successful in such situations?
When I asked my students about their high school experiences during the first week of class, two students said that they hadn’t liked anything. Anything. They felt that their teachers hadn’t cared. They felt that their teachers hadn’t believed that they could be successful.
They also believe that Professor X doesn’t believe that they can be successful – even though I know that isn’t true. Like many of our faculty, this person would bend over backwards for our students. I’ve seen Professor X do so.
I don’t think we should praise students for poor work. I don’t think we should give everyone A’s. In fact, Crocker and Nuer (2003) suggest that praise and focus on self-esteem can be counterproductive and create people with fragile self-esteem, problems in meeting competence needs, maladaptive behaviors such as lying and stealing, and avoidance of situations that could potentially lead to failure. On the other hand, as my friend and colleague Miguel Olivas-Luján has observed, we need to consider whether we are fostering maladaptive self-fulfilling prophecies. Have Professor X’s comments encouraged such self-fulfilling prophecies without intending to do so?
Do we really believe that our students can learn? If so, we need to find ways to talk to them using the language of growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). We need to communicate that it takes effort to complete tasks, that challenges and criticism are good things, and that we believe that they can learn. When we talk to them, we need to compliment the work they’ve done, rather than lead them to believe that their successes or failures say something central about who they are.
They are neither their successes nor their failures. With effort, with our support, they can achieve more than they believe they can.
Crocker, J., & Nuer, N. (2003). The insatiable quest for self-worth. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 14, 31-34.
Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org