Believing in Students

Written by Drew McConnell

Henry Ford once said “The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right.” This is a well known saying, but we often underestimate its educational significance. Learning is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a student believes they can learn, they will. If a student believes they can’t learn, they won’t. But this sense of ability comes not only from themselves, but from the mentors and community around them.

Year after year Jeffrey performed poorly in school. His grades were low, his confidence was low, and frankly he had quit putting any time or effort into school. Neither he nor his teachers had high expectations for him. Jeffrey was, however, a very skilled filmmaker. He spent countless hours of his free time designing, filming and editing short films. But his skills didn’t seem to be of any value to his schoolwork or his teachers, except for one.

Mr. Riley invested time into developing a relationship with Jeffrey. He learned all about Jeffrey’s likes, dislikes, fears, background and interests. Mr. Riley knew that Jeffrey was not learning disabled, dumb, or otherwise incapable. He had simply been repeatedly told through bad grades and unsupportive teachers he wasn’t smart. This became the identity he adopted, the one his teachers reinforced and therefore the one he lived out.

Mr. Riley began giving Jeffrey autonomy in how he demonstrated his mastery of class material, so Jeffrey did what he did best: create films. All of a sudden Jeffrey became very interested in his schoolwork. He began working 20 plus hours on projects he normally spent one hour on, and once stayed up all night to finish a project. Jeffrey’s confidence in his ability to make films all of a sudden applied to contexts in which he felt incompetent, redefining his self-concept as a less-than-average student to a creative, capable and successful one. But the transformation didn’t stop there. Mr. Riley knew Jeffrey’s success could not and should not be isolated to his own classroom.

Jeffrey had a particular aversion to English class. He saw no purpose to writing and had no confidence in his ability to do it. Then one day Mr. Riley asked Jeffrey a simple question: “What makes a good film?” After much deliberation, Jeffrey decided a good story can make or break a film. Then a lightbulb went off in his head. Good storylines require good writing. This idea did not excite Jeffrey, but he recognized the importance of becoming a better writer in improving his ability in the area where he was passionate. He then began working with his English teacher to build his writing skills in order to improve his films. Jeffrey became a fantastic writer and became more interested and engaged in English. The question was no longer if he was a good writer, it was how he could build his writing skills.

Whether we mean them to or not, the perceptions we have of others, especially students, have an effect on their self-concept and performance (Cozolino). The way we perceive people affects the way we treat them, and in turn affects their identity and behavior. Just like a basketball team playing up or down to their competitor’s level, students will rise or fall to the level of performance we expect of them. The same can be said for our everyday interactions with people. In order to combat our own bias, we must first realize them. We must continually ask ourselves the following questions.

What assumptions, perceptions or impressions do I have of my students/peers/neighbors? Are they negative or positive?
How might I encourage and build confidence in others?
How can I help students build a positive vision for themselves and their communities?
How can I give students autonomy to bring their own interests, skills and ideas into the classroom?
How can I get students to think about how they can learn instead of if they can learn?


Cozolino, Louis (2013-01-07). The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education) (Kindle Locations 2252-2253). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at