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We Need to Help 'Students Recognize the Brilliance They Already Have'

(This is the final post in a five-part series.  You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

What can teachers do to help highlight student assets and not their deficits?  In other words, what can teachers do to help create that mindset for themselves when they look at students and what can they do to help students develop the same view?

In Part One, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Dr. Larry J. Walker, Carmen Nguyen, Julie Jee, Shawna Coppola, Kevin Parr, and Andrew Sharos shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Larry, and Carmen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Lisa Westman, Salome Thomas El, T.J. Vari, Amber Chandler, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Rita Platt, Cheryl Mizerny, and Adria Klein, Ph.D., contributed their commentaries.

In Part Three, Elizabeth Stein, Beth Kobett, Ed.D., Carol Pelletier Radford, Dr. Noah Prince, Michael Hart, Ph.D., Jenny Edwards, and Keisha Rembert offered their answers.

In Part Four,  Dr. Alison J. Mello, Rhonda Precourt, Gen Arcovio, Michelle Knight-Manuel, Joanne Marciano, Dr. Christi Bergin, Kelly Chandler-Olcott, J. Stuart Ablon, Alisha Pollastri, and Signe Whitson provided even more suggestions.

This five-part series is "wrapped up" today with comments from Nadine Sanchez, Shaeley Santiago, Alex Shevrin Venet, Katie White, Tonya Ward Singer, Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, Barbara Blackburn,  Marisa Nathan, Brett J. Novick, and LaChawn Smith. I also include ideas from readers.

Response From Nadine Sanchez

Nadine Sanchez is a current elementary school principal with over 10 years of teaching experience. She has worked as a Teach for America corps member and in multiple school districts as an educator and reading specialist. Nadine approaches education as a lifelong learner and more importantly, unlearning in support of students:

Emphasizing student assets is a process of unlearning bias we've internalized based on racialized policies and systematic disenfranchisement of minoritized communities. It starts with first recognizing how white supremacy presents in schooling and how policies have been purposeful in depriving black and brown students of opportunities.

In the classroom, it's reflecting on the way we police students and how we interpret displays of respect and disrespect. The ability to recognize your triggers and responding with a student-centered approach, rather than your own perception of the event. It also begins with privileging different ways of communicating in your classroom. For example, when we only teach formulaic writing or are constantly correcting grammar of English-language learners, rather than advancing and scaffolding thinking around content, we silence students that need the most experience with language. We hold deficit mindset when we only look at student achievement through our narrow cultural lens, rather than building on the content and the displays of students in our charge.

Something that helps is working with an affinity group, or a group of colleagues who can hold you accountable to working through this. Using a reflection protocol can help analyze a teacher move through a more student-centered lens. Zarretta Hammond in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain suggests using a Mindful Reflection Protocol by Dray & Wisneski.

I think it begins with the belief that your students are brilliant and being able to recognize when you assess students through perceived deficits. It's a matter of taking responsibility for helping students recognize the brilliance they already have.

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Response From Shaeley Santiago

Shaeley Santiago is an English-learner strategist for the Ames Community school district in Ames, Iowa. She has also served as an ESL instructional coach and a secondary ESL teacher in both Ames and Perry, Iowa. She is a big fan of social media for teachers; you can follow her on Twitter at @HSeslteacher:

Because teachers' jobs are all about helping students learn new information, grow their skills, and improve in their performance, it is easy for us to fixate on areas where students are lacking. After all, how else will we help them get better if we don't identify their weaknesses? The problem with this approach is that it leads to low expectations and the cycle of lesser demands that often is perpetuated by stereotypes. Instead of allowing ourselves to get caught up in what is wrong with our students, we need to focus on where they are strong. Having an asset-based mindset shifts not only our expectations and relationship with students. It also impacts their chances of future success.

So how do we as teachers cultivate an asset-based perspective, especially for students who traditionally underperform at school? Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

  • Redefine school success - In education, we often have a limited view of what a successful student is, relying heavily on top scores on academic-achievement tests as the ultimate measure. We value literacy skills to the detriment of other "soft skills" such as teamwork, flexibility, and communication. By thinking more broadly about what our students can do and moving beyond standardized assessments as the primary method of measuring school success, we may notice assets like their positive role in influencing their peers or their dedication to fulfilling family responsibilities by working part time while attending school in order to contribute toward the household expenses. We may also realize that some of our students are very talented in areas like fine arts or career and technical education specialties. 

  • Solicit information from students and families - Ask your students and their families about what they most enjoy and what they are good at. The answers you get back may surprise you! Hopefully, the information you gain from your inquiries will help you develop a fuller picture of the child you see in a controlled school environment. If done well, asking these kinds of questions can expand your own horizons about what traits are valued most. Cultural differences and life experiences impact how we view the world. Being aware of our own unique lenses helps us to examine our biases and be more open and accepting of other views.

  • Plan how to communicate "hidden assets" with others at school - Once you've broadened your idea of what strengths students bring with them to school and identified unique assets, share the information with other staff. Consider a visual representation such as a trading card featuring student strengths or a brochure with student profiles. Your communication plan might also include role playing with students so they can practice how to advocate for themselves. Whatever the approach to sharing this information, the important concept is for educators to focus on the assets of students rather than their deficits.

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Response From Alex Shevrin Venet

Alex Shevrin Venet is a professional-development facilitator, author, and educator from Vermont. Her work focuses on developing an equity-based trauma-informed lens through reflective practice:

To see students through a strengths-based lens, cultivate a mindset of unconditional positive regard. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Rogers in 1951, the term "unconditional positive regard" refers to a stance we take in relationships with other people. When we treat students with unconditional positive regard, we communicate to our students: "I care about you. You have value. You don't have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing's going to change my mind."

What does this look like in practice? Starting with "I care about you" means that we abandon the idea of "to get my respect, you have to earn it." Assume that students are doing the best they can. Try to view challenges or misbehavior as relational problems to be solved, rather than reflections on a student's character. Grant that each student deserves to be cared for, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, academic status, or any of the other myriad identities that makes them unique and human. Interrogate your own implicit bias and socialization so that you can see students clearly and dismiss any inclination to judge. 

To be able to say "you have value," learn about your students as individuals. Go beyond interest surveys and look for ways to make students' passions central to your classroom. You might do this through student-generated questions or negotiated curriculum. Consider a daily check-in so students have space each day to share what's important to their lives.

How do we communicate to students that "you don't have to prove your value to me?" When you need to communicate with students about challenges, think carefully about your words, body language, and tone. Don't be sarcastic or let frustration get the best of you. Instead of, "You're falling behind again," say, "I care about your progress in this class. What can I do to help you get back on track?" Instead of, "If you don't X, I'm going to Y," say, "I've noticed that you're having a hard time. What's up?"

Finally, challenge yourself to live up to "nothing's going to change my mind." Create a classroom space where being part of the community isn't contingent on grades, participation, behavior, or attendance. Students belong because they belong, no strings attached. If your classroom management relies on sending students out of the room, or excluding them from celebrations or rewards, reflect on how you might be sending the message "you only belong here if you can follow the rules." When conflict happens, use restorative practices to address harm and then give everyone a fresh start. View your students as complex, full human beings. Allow yourself to embrace the mess of tending to student relationships—the mess is where the joy in our shared humanity lives.

When you feel your unconditional positive regard waning, take it as a sign that you need to pause and reflect. Write a thank-you note to your student for something about them you genuinely appreciate. Make a positive phone call home. Write in your journal a list of the amazing things you think your student will have accomplished 15 years from now. Think back to when you first met your student and notice three ways they have grown or progressed, even if those signs of growth seem really tiny.

Highlighting student strengths isn't always easy: Conflict in relationships is inevitable, and people struggle while they grow. Schools aren't always inherently conducive to celebrating the individual, and oppressive systems can lead to mistrust between students, teachers, and families. Amidst these challenges, let unconditional positive regard be your guiding philosophy. We all deserve to hear: "I care about you. You have value. You don't have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing's going to change my mind." 

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Response From Katie White

Katie White spends her time immersed in all things education. She is coordinator of learning for a school district in Saskatchewan,Canada; an educational consultant; an assessment associate for Solution Tree's Assessment Center; an editor of the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network newsletter; a contracted writer; and an author of Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices that Honor K-12 Teachers and Learners and Unlocked: Assessment as the Key to Everyday Creativity in the Classroom:

Teachers, in many respects, are in the business of deficit thinking. It is the nature of the job, and many aspects of the education system have been designed to support this perspective. We look for gaps in learning—for missing pieces—because those gaps are where our work resides. We plan lessons around student challenges and we assess student work with the same thing in mind.

However, always approaching our work in this way can begin to affect our optimism. For example, assessing student work with the intention of finding errors, misconceptions, and needs can weigh heavily on the heart when the work is collected before students are proficient. Before too long, we may wonder if we taught at all and we may even end up feeling hopeless.

This is why the best strategy I have ever observed and used personally to shift this mindset is to delay scoring or correcting student work. Instead, consider first approaching demonstrations of student learning by "harvesting" the work for strengths only. Instead of counting the mistakes, acknowledge the gifts—every piece of work has them. Some students may be rapidly approaching mastery, and this is clear; others may be showing stamina by attempting what was asked (proficient or not); yet others may be sharing outside-the-box thinking. By collecting strengths, we celebrate how far we have come and we celebrate things we can shift off our "to do list," because every strength represents one less thing we have to teach.

This process need not be cumbersome. A pile of sticky notes is often all we need. Perhaps the strength is identified on a note at the end of the work sample and students are tasked the next day with finding evidence in their work to support this strength. Or perhaps the strengths are collected and then written on the board, and students have to decide which of the strengths belongs to them and justify why this is so. 

Most importantly, analyzing student work by starting with strengths allows us to linger on student assets. We can identify strengths that we can leverage during collaborative time. We can group students by strength and ask them to deepen their skills and knowledge together. Perhaps we might cluster students in teams with varying strengths in order to ensure collaborative time is highly productive. We can help our students to see the gifts that each learner brings to the classroom space. Consistent exposure to strengths reframes how we view our learners and the work they do. We can see the path forward through the lens of a positive mindset.

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Response From Tonya Ward Singer

Tonya Ward Singer consultants internationally to support K-12 educators in transforming teaching for equity and English-learner achievement. Tonya is the author of bestsellers EL Excellence Every Day and Opening Doors to Equity and co-author of Breaking Down the Wall (Corwin, October 2019) and EL and literacy curricula for major publishers. Connect with Tonya on Twitter @TonyaWardSinger and at www.tonyasinger.com:

Observing and listening are the keys to teaching to students' assets.  Combine these with self-awareness about cultural lens and biases to teach to strengths in any culturally and linguistically rich community.  

In every lesson, look and listen for students' assets. You will notice strengths that are relative to the lesson such as language choices students make, ideas students bring, and ways students approach a challenge—and can build these into how you teach.  Also, notice assets in broad ways that extend beyond learning goals of a single lesson. For example, learn what students love in and beyond school and watch the ways they shine socially, athletically, or in focused solitude.  Recognize that your strengths, language, cultural background, and life experiences are only a tiny slice of possibility—and do not let them be the window through which you judge students.

This isn't easy, of course, as it's hard to be aware of biases.  To see my biases and disrupt my own defaults to focus on deficits, I use discomfort to my advantage.  This takes self-awareness to observe my own emotional reactions as I teach.  I know I have an opportunity to shift my mindset from deficit to asset when I feel discomfort—discomfort may be annoyance at a student behavior, or frustration at a students' freezing in class, or the humble awareness that I'm judging a student in a negative light. Awareness of my emotional response is step one and key to shifting from potentially blaming the student to reframing my way of thinking.  I ask myself, what might the student be experiencing right now? Why this behavior? Why these choices? What strengths is the student applying right now?

I then broaden the lens from this one situation to look big picture at the students' strengths.  What does the student do well? What does the student enjoy?  When do I see this same student motivated and self-directed?  What assets from these other experiences can I help the student connect to in order to work through this present challenge?  What is motivating and meaningful to this student?

With meaning, purpose, relevance, and connection to a students' strengths, anything is possible.  I just have to be curious enough and listen, observe and reflect enough to find those entry points where a student can use strengths as a springboard to engagement and deeper learning.   

Sometimes my discomfort doesn't come from a challenge the student experiences but my own lack of understanding.  For example, if two students are speaking a language I don't understand, my first response may be discomfort that I don't know what they are saying. I want them to do math, and they may be off topic or getting into trouble. I take a deep breath and get curious.What might they be discussing? I see them pointing at their drawings and writing down numbers between their words. I see them leaning and looking at one another in what looks like peer collaboration and support.  Now, instead of shutting down the conversation with a reaction from my discomfort, I'm leaning in to listen.  I wonder how this conversation is deepening and supporting their learning.

A good rule of thumb is to listen first and suspend judgment. Listen to understand.  Listen to identify strengths. Listen to know your students.  Listen to learn beyond your own perceived sense of how students are supposed to engage and be willing to expand your own sense of what's possible.  

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Response From Dr. Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose work explores race rhetorics and equitable composition instruction. She is the author of the book Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year CollegeEnglish EducationEnglish JournalThe Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, St. John's University Humanities Review, and numerous edited collections:

Meet Students Where They Are, Not Where You Want Them to Be

What did you imagine when you first pictured yourself as a teacher? If you're like me, perhaps you saw yourself having deep, meaningful conversations about writing, art, and life with a small group of students, eyes wide open, chins resting on hands, lives changing as they make connections between rhetoric and human existence. If you're like me, it is also possible you got your ideas about the classroom from an old movie rather than any classroom you'd ever seen. 

Sometimes I do have meaningful conversations with highly engaged students, but, more often than not, the reality looks like this: I am standing in an overcrowded classroom with students whose cellphones are attached to their palms and whose interest in writing is limited to the fulfillment of a requirement. These students' educational experiences vary widely, and our time together is spent less on philosophical conversations than on practical instruction and writing workshops. 

It would be easy for me to focus on what my students are not doing, and, very often, teachers do just that. If our goals are to help students reach particular milestones in their writing (whether those milestones are standardized points defined by the official curriculum or ones we have defined ourselves), it is only natural to focus on what is lacking or how far they have to go before they get to that milestone. The problem is that the emphasis on what is lacking creates a discourse of need that blames students for where they are yet doesn't help to move them forward.

My experience in teacher education and professional development, combined with my own experiences in the classroom, lead me to believe that the deficit-model instruction teachers employ isn't the result of ill will or condescension but frustration with the disjunction between where students are and where teachers wish they would be. Intentions aside, that frustration accompanies us into the classroom—and it can both affect our feelings about our work and prevent real, student-responsive teaching and learning from happening.

To stay focused on students' assets rather than deficits and better meet students where they are, I suggest teachers do the following:

  1. Admit frustrations (though not directly to students). Those frustrations enter the classroom whether you invite them in or not. Keep a teaching journal or join an informal in-person or online teacher-support group. Acknowledge your feelings and try to understand where they come from. Practice self-reflection and self-care. 

  2. Separate your struggles from your students'. Once you've acknowledged your frustrations, realize that they have more to do with you than they do with your students. Your students aren't trying to disappoint you, and it isn't their fault that their educational experience doesn't match the classroom of your dreams.

  3. Identify your students' strengths. That girl who's struggling with equations? She might be an avid reader.

  4. Ask students to identify their own goals. While we can't toss our learning objectives out the window, we can see where our class goals match our students' goals for themselves. Ask them what they think they're good at and what they want to improve upon—and why. One student may want to become a better writer so she can write letters to a father away on active military duty; another may want to tell stories. 

  5. Experiment with teaching methods. Try word problems for the girl who loves reading but struggles with math; the context may help her figure out equations. Assign a play and invite the boy who learns by doing to perform a role; taking on a character and paying attention to stage directions might help his reading comprehension.

  6. Keep checking in. Ask students what they like and what they don't. Ask them what they think is helping. Invite them to play an active role in their own learning. And don't forget to notice your own reactions: what have you enjoyed? What has upset or delighted you? Emphasizing the strengths your students bring to the classroom can make their learning experiences more productive—and it can make your experiences as a teacher less stressful and more rewarding.

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Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn, a Top 30 Global Guru, is a best-selling author of more than 20 books, including the bestseller Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter WordRigor and Differentiation in the Classroom, Money for Good Grades and Other Myths of Motivation, and the Quick Reference Guide to Instructional Rigor.  An internationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership, she regularly collaborates with schools and districts for on-site and online professional development.  Barbara can be reached through her website: www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

As I was writing recently, I saw two pictures that helped me think about how we connect with kids.  The first was a profile of a young child.  Although it was a nice picture, I didn't have a full view of the boy.  Just beside it was a picture of the same boy, this time in a portrait.  I could see all of his face, and it gave me a better representation of who he was.  I realized that portraits are far more helpful than profiles in terms of understanding who someone is.  

In order to have high expectations and a growth mindset, you need to have a portrait of each student.  How can you know what and how to adjust instruction to positively impact student learning if you don't have a complete picture of each of your students? In order to create a portrait to help you fully understand all aspects of each student, you'll want to focus on strengths as well as understanding challenges.

I've found that, to get a full portrait of a student, we need to assess him or her in seven key areas:  Readiness, Ability, Interest, Culture, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Social and Emotional Learning and Growth Mindset. Too often, we focus on the lack of readiness and ability rather than viewing where they are as a foundation for moving forward. Using a mix of formal and informal assessments is helpful but only if you highlight strengths in addition to weaknesses.  Culture is another category in which we tend to focus on the negative.  "She's on free and reduced lunch, so she is going to struggle more than others.".  Not necessarily.  Find out how her experiences can serve as a base for growth.  For example, you may feel like a particular student doesn't exhibit grit and resilience in your classroom.  However, when you dig deeper, you realize he does exhibit those characteristics in other areas of his life.  You can then help him transfer those skills to learning.  Considering the other categories allows you to truly get a complete picture of your students.  The overall goal is to look beyond the surface to see the true learner. 

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Response From Marisa Nathan

As Confianza's lead consultant, Marisa Nathan brings 20 years of expertise in advocating and serving multilingual learners. She is a WIDA PRIME trained curriculum correlator, trained in the Comprehensive Literacy Model, and has a deep understanding of dual-language education. Marisa has presented at a number of national and international conferences sharing her asset-based philosophies grounded in family and student engagement, curriculum and instruction, and assessment for language:

Teachers and school systems have an obligation and opportunity to highlight  students assets. Here is a list of ideas of what teachers and school systems can do to feature the assets students bring to school.

  • Teachers and School Systems Can:
    • Have a growth mindset and seek out resources in order to learn about students' diverse backgrounds.
    • Allow students to use all of their language resources in order to access content and make sense of it.
    • School and classroom environments reflect students language, culture, backgrounds (i.e., student work displayed, word wall incorporating languages represented in the classroom, literature and books that are reflective of the students backgrounds, show and teach about important figures that represent student backgrounds).
    • Offer supports and scaffolds to support student learning and access to the curriculum.
    • Ensure that conversations about students in PLCs and meetings are always asset-based.
    • Instead of using the word "deficit," use the word "opportunity."
    • Make connections with families and make them feel welcome in the school community.

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Response From Brett J. Novick

Brett J. Novick has a master's degree in family therapy and postgraduate certifications in school social work as well as educational leadership. He is an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University. Mr. Novick is the author of Parents and Teachers Working Together and has had published numerous national and international articles as well as received several awards for his work in education, administration, counseling, social work, and human rights:

"I can't do it."  This phrase has been uttered by countless students since the dawn of public school history.  Generally, the focus has always been upon what the teacher states in response to the student's perception of a deficit in their individual learning and academic skills.  Hence, the teacher responds with a statement such as, "You can do it. ... You are good enough," etc.

These responses, though well-meaning, often subtly indicate that the emphasis is placed upon the teacher to reassure a student of their abilities.  This means that a student must constantly return to seek external motivation for their confidence in their academics.  The difficulty becomes, what happens when the teacher is not there to bolster the confidence of a pupil's skills?  If we are to prepare our children to be fully functioning adults, we must teach them means of generating their own confidence academically and otherwise.

So how does the teacher go about doing that?  The teacher can request that the student verbalize their own strengths and balance their deficits with the plethora of strengths they do have.  When the student indicates that they don't know how to do something; the teacher can prompt with, "Tell me what are three things you can do to help you solve this problem."  When a student complains to the teacher that, "I don't have any friends."  The teacher can challenge this misconception via, "Name three of your friends right now?"  When a student indicates that they don't know what to do next, "What are three steps that you can take to get help before you ask me."

The teacher is asking the student to debate within their own brain their criticism of themselves, deficits, and lack of self-confidence.  Children, much like adults, believe what they are thinking is, without question, 100 percent accurate.  Hence, if I believe I can't do it, ... I cannot. ... If I believe at the moment I have no friends, ... I don't have any.  The teacher then becomes the resource in which they teach the student to think critically about their own thoughts and balance their deficits with (most importantly) their abilities.

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Response From LaChawn Smith

LaChawn Smith, deputy superintendent for the New Hanover County schools North Carolina. Previously, she served as assistant superintendent for instruction and academic accountability, director of instructional services, principal coach, principal, assistant principal for the New Hanover County district and special education teacher for the Brunswick County schools: 

I believe that for teachers to move away from deficit-based teaching and interventions, teachers have to do the work of addressing implicit bias. Behavior is driven by beliefs, and if you do not believe that students have the ability to achieve, then it is reflected in the behavior, lesson design, and delivery.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Shaeley, Nadine, Alex, Katie, Tonya, Mara, Barbara, Marisa , Brett, and LaChawn, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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