Great Expectations

May 9, 2009

3 min read


If teachers believed in the abilities of all of their students, they'd all achieve significantly more.

The Wall Street Journal cites an interesting experiment. "Elementary-school teachers were told that one group of kids had done extraordinarily well on a test that predicts intellectual 'blooming', and so would make remarkable academic gains." And so it proved. "After a few months, the 'bloomers' had achieved statistically significant gains over the other students."

The problem? No test was ever done. It doesn't even exist. The two groups of students studied represented an even distribution of kids across the spectrum of abilities. "The only difference was in the mind, and expectations, of the teachers," says Professor Robert Rosenthal, professor of psychology at UC Riverside.

Teachers with high expectations of their students "teach them more and teach it more warmly," he continues. These just happen to be the factors that affect student performance the most.

It's not simply, as previously thought, that we frequently perform according to expectations, but that we're taught differently if the teachers believe we can accomplish more, if they believe we have greater potential.

The test suggests that if teachers would believe in the abilities of all of their students, they'd all achieve significantly more. And if we would believe in our children, the same would be true.

When we read stories of people who surmounted extremely impoverished and dysfunctional childhoods to become successful adults, there is one common denominator. They all cite an adult who believed in them -- a loving mother, that special teacher, a concerned pastor or a volunteer big brother. Someone who saw their potential.

We all have tremendous potential. We can all be great. God believes in us. The Torah describes Moses' hesitation in going back to Egypt to lead the Jewish people. "What if they don't believe me?" he questions.

"Put your hand in your shirt," the Almighty commands.

When Moses withdraws his hand, he has contracted tzaraat -- the supernatural disease that was a consequence of speaking slander. ‘How dare you not believe in the Jewish people!' God is demanding.

One of my children recently got into a struggle with one of her teachers. Annoyed at the teacher's constant criticism and threats, she blurted out, "I don't have to listen to you because my mother is on my side." Admittedly this is a complicated story and I had to admonish my daughter that "Under no circumstances could she be rude to her teacher!" But a part of me was glad. Glad that she knew I was on her side. Glad that she knew I believed her -- and in her.

Parenting has its wonderful moments -- and its less than wonderful moments. There are days (weeks, months) when we feel discouraged over a particular child's behavior or direction.

The key (and it can be very difficult at times) is to never give up on your child, to always believe in them, and their potential for growth and change. And to let them know it.

The Jewish people are a nation with staggering potential -- to be a light unto the nations, to teach the world about God. And we've made stunning mistakes along the way -- questioning God and distancing ourselves from His love and protection.

Through it all, like a loving Father, the Almighty has not abandoned us. He continues to see our good. He knows our potential. He believes in us.

And through His belief in us He teaches us how to parent, how to love, and the true value of expectations.

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