June_05_FEATURE_art_SaphierSurrounding students with messages that they have the ability to learn is at the core of closing the achievement gap.

By Jon Saphier

Students of color in America are at the center of a vortex of forces that have created an achievement gap. What a close look at these forces reveals is that the achievement gap is really an opportunity gap.

The opportunity gap gets a head start for many kids before they ever get to school — if they don’t have get the same chances to develop vocabulary, visit museums, or read books as their more privileged peers. But, without equal access to rigorous curriculum and high-expectations teaching, students caught in the opportunity gap can fall farther and farther behind. Add to that the debilitating effects of stereotype threat and institutional racism and we wind up with a tragic squandering of human potential.

But let’s also acknowledge that educators can do much more to provide positive support in the environments we control: the classroom and the school. And the power of that environment to make transformative changes has been demonstrated again and again (see schools identified each year on the Education Trust’s web site: https://edtrust.org/dispelling_the_myth.). Across the country, we can find individual teachers and whole schools at all levels that have overcome these obstacles for students with sustainable gains.

Without active counterforces, however, the cumulative effect of the conditions listed above is that many students of color and of poverty buy the tacit (and sometimes not so tacit) message of society that they are “less than.” Having received these messages all their lives, how could they not?

But teachers can combat these messages by convincing students that “smart is something you can get, not something you are,” and teaching them how to exert effective effort. Their verbal behavior in handling everyday classroom events embeds three messages:

  • What we’re doing is important;
  • You can do it;
  • I’m not going to give up on you.

This article is about getting students to believe in themselves, to believe, first, that they have able brains, and second, that effort is the main determinant of their academic success. If students are behind academically, it is not because anything is wrong with their brains or that their ability is deficient. In this way, the job definition of a teacher is broadened: “My job is to give students belief, confidence, tools, and desire.”

  • Give students the belief that effort can grow ability to do well at academics.
  • Help them develop the confidence that they already have enough brain power to do rigorous work at high standards if they learn effective effort.
  • Teach them the tools for exerting effective effort.
  • Get them to care enough to want to.

We also can combat other forces that lower the confidence of children of color in their academic ability and their worth, such as the pervasive belief in this country in the bell curve of ability, school practices for tracking, disproportionate placement in special education, biased application of discipline procedures, and unequal access to Advanced Placement classes. These are conditions we can change. Mobilizing our knowledge and our will, we can create a surround-sound environment that radically changes things for disadvantaged students.

Graphic: 50 ways to get students to believe in themselves


A surround-sound approach

A surround-sound approach to these issues would include infusing classrooms and schools with high-expectations messages and practices, beginning with a deep examination of our verbal behavior in regularly recurring arenas of classroom life (see items 1 – 9 in Table 1).

There are verbal behaviors that teachers can engage in tomorrow and that will embed the three key messages identified earlier: what we’re doing is important; you can do it; and I’m not going to give up on you.

Persevere and return

Consider the following exchange involving a student who answers a question half-correctly, a common event in classes every day.

      Ms. Moore:   Who wants to read question number one for us?

             Rafael:   What is a natural resource?

      Ms. Moore:   Ricardo, what do you think?

           RICARDO:   Things you find on Earth such as trees, sticks, tree bark.

      Ms. Moore:   Oh, I like that you’re using examples. Things you find on Earth . . . [She           validates what is right or useful about the student answer.] There’s a piece of that, you need to add one more piece to that because right now what you defined is nature. [She presses for missing part.] Want to call on someone to help you get it to natural resources? [She offers student a “lifeline.” ][Ricardo calls on Favour.]

            FAVOUR:   That people can use.

      Ms. Moore:   So put it all together in one good, right definition. [She calls for expression of answer in complete academic vocabulary.]

            FAVOUR:   Natural resource is something found in nature that you can use.

      Ms. Moore:   Ricardo, do you see the difference? [He nods.] So can you say it? [She is persevering and returning to him.]

           RICARDO:   Natural resources are things that people can use.

      Ms. Moore:   Now you’re missing the cool part you had before. [She sends a positive           expectations message that he is able, validating the worth of what he said before and pressing for a complete answer with nothing left out.]

           RICARDO:   Things you find on Earth and things that people can use.

(To see the video of this script go to: http://rbteach.com/products-resources/video/persevere-and-return-natural-resources)

Note that there is no elaborate praise when Ricardo puts everything together. Responding with high fives and lavish praise can inadvertently send the message that a teacher is amazed that the student got it. Ms. Moore just goes on to the next content item because her tacit message is: “Of course, he got it. It’s to be expected that Ricardo can put together the information in a complete synthesis.”

The script we’ve just analyzed contains a so-called clarity move known as “persevere and return” (Saphier, Haley-Speca, & Gower, 2008, pp. 193-194). This move occurs when a teacher goes back to a student who has responded incorrectly and/or incompletely to make sure the student now understands the material. What is so interesting in the example above is that the teacher does persevere and return in a particular way — her response says, “You can do it, and I’m not going to give up on you.” She is also showing tenacity to get complete answers with no parts missing. In a high-expectations classroom, the teacher presses all students in a tenacious way to answer completely, in full sentences, using academic vocabulary and omitting no steps. Doing that is inherently a high-expectations message and a “you can do it” message to the student.

We stick with the student until s/he has produced all necessary elements of the solution or explanation. This is what is happening with Ricardo in this example. Favour rounds out the definition of “natural resources” that Ricardo doesn’t quite understand. But then Ms. Moore goes back to Ricardo and asks him to put it all together. Instead of being the student who needed to be bailed out, Ricardo emerges in triumph as the one who put it all together. More important, we look for opportunities to stick with students who don’t answer correctly or completely right away and also to press them to answer fully. That will usually involve cueing them once or twice in a teacher-student exchange. When a teacher can do this without going on to another student to fill in the “right” parts of the response, she is signaling the student that she believes in the student. When you do get another student to fill in the missing pieces, as in this example, return to the first student to put it all together. That is a high-expectations message and an expression of belief.

Giving help

Teachers can build students’ belief in their ability by carefully choosing what to say when students ask for help (or when we decide we want to offer help.) Note the subtle but important differences in the following scenarios.

Scenario #1: Correctly punctuating a paragraph.

          Student:   Mr. Smith, can you help me with this paragraph? I’m stuck.

       Mr. Smith:   What’s the problem?

          Student:   I can’t get the punctuation.

       Mr. Smith:   Really? Why not? [A vapid question. If the student knew why he couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t be stuck.]

          Student:   I just can’t do it.

       Mr. Smith:   Don’t say you can’t do it! We never say we can’t do it. [Perhaps the teacher wants to urge perseverance. But instead he gives the student a moralistic message of having done something wrong.] Did you try hard? [That’s a no-win question. What if he did? Must be dumb. What if he didn’t? Then he’s a slug.]

          Student:   Yes, but I still can’t.

       Mr. Smith:   Well, you did the first two sentences correctly. Perhaps if you went back and worked a little longer you could do the rest of the paragraph and the next paragraph too. [So working longer and harder with the same old inadequate strategies might somehow magically work?] Why don’t you keep trying for a while and see what happens? [So maybe there will be a miracle. Not likely. I’m out of here.]

None of the parenthetical messages above are communicated explicitly, but they are embedded in the teacher’s choice of language. Contrast those embedded messages with the version of the event below.

Scenario #2: Correctly punctuating a paragraph.

         Student:    Mr. Smith, can you help me with this paragraph? I’m stuck.

      Mr. Smith:    What part is hard for you? [By using “part,” he implies there are parts the student does understand.]

         Student:    I’m just stuck on it all.

      Mr. Smith:    Well, I know you can do part of it because you punctuated the first paragraph correctly, including commas with compound sentences. [He is explicit in his expression of confidence.] The second paragraph has compound sentences, too, but adds restrictive clauses. [He gives the student a cue.]

                              Why don’t you look up restrictive clauses in the book [He provides a strategy.] and see if you can identify where they occur here. I’ll come back for a visit in a short while to see how you’re doing. [He assures the student that he’ll return and follow through to make sure the student succeeds.]

These examples are just a few of the specific ways that high-expectations teachers confront the myth of the bell curve and the fixed mindset and its particularly devastating effect on students of poverty and students of color.

Positive framing of reteaching

What do students think it means when they are in a group that is receiving reteaching? That is entirely shaped by what teachers say and how they say it. Below is a script of a 9th-grade mathematics teacher who frames the reteaching from a growth mindset.

Mr. Herrmann has given students three problems when they arrive at class: Type A, Type B, and Type C. There is a little rectangle above each problem on their sheets. Mr. Herrmann goes around and writes in each rectangle either “E” for extension, meaning they’re ready for an extension of that type of problem, or “S” for support, meaning he will call up the student for a small group support session (reteaching) at his table later. If Mr. Herrmann thinks the student is doing all right but may be shaky, he writes “E/S” in the box, and the student can choose to come up or not when support is offered for that type of problem.

Three groups in all will receive reteaching in this class. Some students will be in multiple groups.

Now read the script below for what he says just before the first group is called. What messages and expectations is he conveying to students by his choice of words?

“All right. This is my favorite part, where we actually get what we need.” [He says nothing that suggests this is remedial. Everyone needs something for a next step, and that’s what this chunk will be about. It’s my” favorite part” because giving each student what they need is his job and his commitment, in addition to giving him the most satisfaction.]

“So, I’m going to hand out the extensions.” [Everybody gets one!] “If you have an E, then you’re ready for the extension for that type of problem. So just for type A, this is the extension for type B and so on.”

“If you have an S, that means you’re ready for the support session.” [He’s using equality of language. “Ready” suggests that everyone is ready for something that’s on target for them.] “You come up here, we talk about it, we make sure we get it.” [He’s expressing confidence in students. The result will be that you get it!] “That’s the whole point, that we all leave here making sure we understand how to do every single one of these problems.”

“In the past, I’ve been confident that we leave here, and we really get how to do these things.” [He’s saying that his track record shows that all students learn this when he uses reteaching about once a week.] “So whatever you happen to need at this time, for some of you I marked E/S, you might have been close but didn’t finish. Maybe you could handle the extension or maybe you could handle the session, just depending on what you feel comfortable with.” [He’s allowing students to choose.]

“The answers, the keys to the extensions are back here (taps pile) so if you’re working in the back you can check your answer and work with others to work through it.” [He’s encouraging cooperative learning and telling students that he trusts them.]

“So I’m going to hand this out to everybody.” [Even if you don’t get to it today, everyone in here is capable of these.]

“I’m going to start the session for type A problems in the front, so if you want to come to the session” [choice for some with E/S] “or you’re assigned to the session for type A problem, start making your way up to the front. Otherwise, you can maybe move if you want to work with some people, and, uh, get what you need to get.”

[Now sitting with first group] “So this is one of the key problems. . . . “

(Here’s the link to video: http://rbteach.com/products-resources/video/differentiation-my-favorite-part)

What if . . .

All 50 ways in the attached table are needed if teachers are to create a surround-sound environment of success. All students will benefit from a conscious shift in how we talk, but for some students of color and of poverty it could be more than beneficial; it could be lifesaving and then wonderfully empowering.

While teaching students about brain growth and brain malleability certainly has a place in the education of students of color and of poverty — in fact of all students — much more is needed. Teachers must convey their belief to students through how they handle everyday events like the ones above, and they must do so mindfully with language that has embedded meaning of their belief in their students.

Each year, a surprising number of schools do just that and narrow or eliminate the achievement gap. They convince students, especially underperforming, low-confidence students, that ability can be grown, they show them how, and they motivate them to want to.

When we add this set of teaching skills to the job definition of teaching, and when we build them into teacher training, hiring, induction, evaluation and continuous development, then we will be well on our way to eliminating the opportunity gap in this country.


Saphier, J., Haley-Speca, M., & Gower, R. (2008). The skillful teacher (6th ed.). Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching.

JON SAPHIER is founder and president of Research for Better Teaching, Acton, Mass. He is the author of The Skillful Teacher (Research for Better Teaching, 2008) and High Expectations Teaching (Corwin Press, 2017).

Originally published in Feburary 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (5), 48-54. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.