There are no “difficult students”, just judgy teachers

Diary submitted by Silvia O., Valencia, 2020

How I handle behavioural issues with my students. Discussing examples from past teaching experiences and whether my way of handling issues achieved success or not.

In my experience during two internships as a kindergarten teacher and later on as a Teacher of a Foreign Language I, as many others in my position, have realised how much positive expectations in your students can influence their performance and attitude in a positive way, and negative expectations can have a negative impact on them creating even more behavioural issues.

This effect has been called “The Pygmalion Effect” or “self-fulfilling prophecy”. In the article “The Power of the Pygmalion Effect”, authors U. Boser, M. Wilhelm, and R. Hanna explain how teachers’ expectations and students’ college-going outcomes have a significant relationship: “teacher expectations were tremendously predictive of student college completion rates. In fact (…) were more predictive of college success than many major factors, including student motivation and student effort. These findings build on other research that suggests teacher expectations are powerful predictors of future success”.

When I was doing one of my internships as a kindergarten teacher, I found out that, even when the students were merely toddlers, there still were teachers that “warned” their colleagues of them “being difficult students”. 

I reckon this is a really dangerous way to teach, because you are not only putting negative expectations on your own students when they are in your class, but also robbing them of the opportunity to turn a new leaf with another teacher.

I chose to ignore “the warnings” and treat my students equally. When one of them misbehaved I told them what they did wrong and how to make up for it, giving them the opportunity to learn their lesson.

I found that this approach worked wonders, making the so-called “difficult students” at ease and more receptive to learn new things when they were in my class than when they were with teachers that played favourites and jumped at every opportunity to scold them.

The author Jo Boaler, in her book “Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching” explains how communicating positive expectations has a great impact in motivated students but even greater in ones that appear to struggle during your class: “Teachers can communicate positive expectations to students by using encouraging words, and it is easy to do this with students who appear motivated, who learn easily, or who are quick. But it is even more important to communicate positive beliefs and expectations to students who are slow, appear unmotivated, or struggle.”

I believe it is our duty as teachers to believe in the potential of all of our students, being self-critical of our own prejudices and standing up for our students when we find ourselves or our colleagues creating labels that can damage their self-esteem and affect their future without even realising.


Jo B. Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

The Power of the Pygmalion Effect – Center for American Progress. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2014/10/06/96806/the-power-of-the-pygmalion-effect.

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