Blaming versus cultivating learners
Oran Tkatchov and Mary Tkatchov
May 30, 2018

“You should know this by now!” the teacher declared in aggravation to the student who, again, did not understand an educational concept. “You do realize that you are years behind in writing compared to other kids in your grade, don’t you?” After class this frustrated teacher exclaimed to the academic coach, “There’s no reason for this kid not to know this stuff. I’m doing my part; he just doesn’t seem to care. I teach to very high expectations for all my students, but if they aren’t learning it and putting in the effort to reach those expectations, that’s on them, not me.”

It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming students who repeatedly show a lack of progress. After all, students need to be involved in their education and make an effort to learn. The teacher cannot simply dump knowledge into a child’s brain. However, consider this metaphor from "At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk's Life" by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

Just as the gardener is skilled in finding ways to help a struggling crop to thrive, the teacher is trained to cultivate student learning by figuring out what each student needs to achieve desired learning outcomes and adjusting instructional strategies accordingly. If a student is not meeting learning expectations, it is not enough for the teacher to merely evaluate the current state of a student’s performance (i.e., the lettuce is not growing). Expert teachers know to consider multiple variables—including background knowledge, motivation, age, self-esteem and environment—that might be hindering student learning and draws on pedagogical expertise to make instructional adjustments.

When teachers look for blame rather than solutions and alternate paths for students to meet expectations, they become critics. As stated in the book "Success for Every Student: A Guide to Teaching and Learning", teachers can become blamers, or critics, for various reasons:

  • Past experience. A teacher assumes that a student’s past behavior is predictive of his or her future behavior, or makes assumptions about current students who share similar characteristics with difficult students from previous years.
  • Empathy. The teacher, with the best of intentions, feels empathy for a struggling student and blames the student’s circumstances (“he came into my class so far behind the other students already” or “if you only knew what she deals with at home”). Giving the struggling student less work or lowering expectations rather than working to elevate the student’s performance causes the student to fall further behind.
  • Teacher confidence. Many teachers feel like they do not have the tools to help struggling students meet expectations. They also may not understand why some students are not able to learn in traditional ways. Lacking the training and tools for providing differentiated support to struggling students can be paralyzing or frustrating to teachers, which in turn lowers their confidence in themselves and their students.

Words and actions in the classroom provide evidence of whether a teacher is a blamer or a cultivator. To communicate high expectations for all students and create paths for all students to reach those expectations, teachers must pay careful attention to their own words and behaviors. As Carrie Lupoli states in an article for ASCD, “Our language as educators reflects and shapes not only how we see others but also how they ultimately see themselves. When our words convey faith and optimism, we are more likely to hold high expectations for students, and they are more likely to live up to them.” The words a teacher chooses when communicating expectations to a class or individual student show whether he or she is critiquing what is or cultivating what can be.

Here are some examples:

Blamers evaluate what has already been done; cultivators look toward creating a better future.

  • Blamer: “Week after week you aren’t learning any of this.”
  • Cultivator: “Tomorrow I’m going to take a different approach with this concept based on the feedback from your assessment. I know you can get this.”

Blamers become defensive about their part of the problem; cultivators try to improve themselves as well as others.

  • Blamers: “I taught it just like I have the past seven years, so don’t blame me for those scores!”
  • Cultivator: “I need to learn another way to teach fractions for the kids who aren’t getting it. I’ll schedule time to see how another teacher approaches this.”

Blamers point fingers; cultivators offer solutions to the problem.

  • Blamers: “Johnny’s brother, who is now in jail, was as unmotivated as Johnny when I taught him three years ago. They have no discipline at home. Those kids never had a chance.”
  • Cultivator: “Within what is in our control, we need to figure out ways to provide Johnny additional instructional time. Can we look at his schedule and get creative to maximize every minute that he is on this campus?”

Blamers judge performance to rank and label; cultivators use descriptive feedback for improvement.

  • Blamer: “You got a 55% on your test. This is one of the lowest scores in the class.”
  • Cultivator: “Based on your test results, you are proficient in identifying proper nouns but not adjectives. During our one-on-one meeting, I want to work with you on identifying adjectives.”

Blamers focus on shortcomings; cultivators focus on successes, no matter how small.

  • Blamer: “How hard is it to stay in a straight line? Other kindergarteners manage to stay in line, but every day on the way to lunch that kid is bouncing around!
  • Cultivator: “After making eye contact with her, she got back in line. She was really happy when I praised her for correcting herself.”

It is one thing to have high expectations: it is another to have a plan that creates pathways for every child to reach those expectations. Sometimes teachers forget that their job is more than covering material and evaluating whether or not students retained it. The true craft of teaching involves believing in students when they might not even believe in themselves and using professional expertise to guide them to blossom.

Oran Tkatchov is a former teacher, school administrator and director of professional development in the areas of special education and school improvement at the Arizona Department of Education. He currently supports professional learning at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. His latest book, Success for Every Student – A Guide to Teaching and Learning, is now available.

Mary Tkatchov is a writer, editor and assessment developer. She has over 15 years of experience in secondary and higher education. She is currently an assessment developer at Western Governors University.

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