At our staff meeting before our students return, our principal set us to a task of discussing ways in which we would challenge ourselves and change our behaviors to better reflect our shared belief that every student can learn. It was just a short part of a bigger meeting, and like many chats between colleagues who know and like each other, someone opened with a joke.
“I promise to be there with a glass of wine when you need one!” she said.
“And remember that, regardless of whether the glass is half full or half empty, there’s still wine in it!” someone added.
Another person remarked that someone needs to teach her how to properly enjoy wine.
“The key is actually not to worry too much about it,” I said. “Even the professionals get thrown by labels. I mean, a cheap wine from Wal-Mart won a major award this past year, so the pressure’s way off plebes like us.”
In a wine competition, judges do a “blind” tasting, meaning that they have no idea what specific wine they are tasting. They may know details like the vintage or the varietal of wine but not much else. It seems that this is necessary to really assess the wine, as experts have been tricked into believing wrong things about wine — basic things such as the color. In a 2001 experiment, a scientist invited fifty-seven wine experts to sample glasses of wine, half of which appeared to be red wine, the other half white. In fact, every glass was the same white wine, but some had been tinted with food coloring to look red. For the most part, it seemed as though no one could detect the truth. On top of that, the experts were allowed to see labels — which were intentionally misleading and inaccurate. Glasses served out of a fancy-labelled bottle were praised, while glasses served out of the table wine bottle were denigrated. Again, this was the same wine, and the only difference was the packaging. But their expectations of the wine turned out to have more weight in their judgment than what was actually served up in the glass.
And what’s the teacher’s take-away? One of the first grade teachers told me weeks ago, “I heard from the kindergarten teacher that one of my students was ‘bad,’ but I didn’t want to know which one, because I don’t want to assume they’re going to be ‘bad’ for me this year.” Just like the wine experts, we’d like to think we’re capable of objectively judging the specific qualities of someone or something. But, we tend to assess the individual attributes of others based on their appearances, and our expectations of them. This first grade teaching colleague of mine doesn’t want to hear which kid is “bad” because she doesn’t want to allow herself to subconsciously expect him to be bad, especially not when he’s going to a new school with a new teacher and has a clean slate ahead of him.
We teachers are especially prone to the halo effect, which is when our overall impression of somebody influences all your thoughts and feelings about that person’s character. Author David McRaney discusses a study done on teachers in his book You Are Now Less Dumb. Teachers all watched the same video of a fourth grade student performing activities. The teachers did not know it, but the child on the video was specifically chosen because he was absolutely average, with test scores well within normal ranges for his age. The teachers were divided into four groups. The first group was told they would be evaluating emotionally disturbed children. The second was told they would be evaluating learning disabled children. The third group was told they would be evaluating mentally retarded children. The fourth group served as a control group, and they were told nothing specific about the children they would evaluate beforehand. (This experiment was conducted in 1976, so the language they used at the time may not reflect the language we would choose today.)
The control group, who had no expectations in particular of the child, accurately judged him to be typical. But the other groups who attached a label to him before seeing him judged him much more harshly. They saw a child struggling with challenges that did not actually exist. All groups saw the same video of the same child doing the same things. But those who thought he was emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded did not revise their assessment when he behaved normally. Rather, they found evidence in his behavior to support their expectations, not subvert them. “The halo effect can easily set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which attitude changes behavior, which then loops back around over and over for the persons both giving and receiving a label,” writes McRaney.
Our first day of school is next week. I prepare in so many ways — decorating my classroom, picking my outfit, packing my lunch. But I also try to adopt the attitude of my colleague. I shall try not to judge each student as a whole based on their appearance or reputation alone. My students shouldn’t be burdened with my first impression of them for the rest of the school year.