Every year of the last thirty-five, a teacher has come to me sometime during the first week in January and said, “It’s amazing, the kids are doing everything I struggled all fall to get them to do.” Or “I don’t know what happened over the vacation. Like magic, suddenly they are behaving. They don’t interrupt each other during our class discussions. I say ‘Time to line up,’ and they just get in line—none of this jockeying for position. What happened?”
The mysterious phenomenon of being surprised by how much kids seem to learn while we are not looking bears some reflection. Our discoveries can be particularly valuable for parents as well as teachers—anyone, in fact, who wishes they could change someone else’s behavior.
Various hypotheses come to mind. First, the teacher has been having more impact than she thinks. Secondly, the messy work toward mastery (writing, riding a bike, putting on a play) seems like it will never come together until suddenly it does. Thirdly, the students actually want to do what the teacher has been asking of them, and they welcome this rare moment (on January 4th or so) to show the teacher that they can do it under their own steam.
All probably true, but a fourth hypothesis is my pick for the new year: maybe, the teacher pressed the reset button. The class changed because the teacher changed. This hypothesis has over 30 years of research behind it. People get into single feedback loops with each other, and get stuck in a cycle of behavior that both find frustrating. It happens between friends, siblings, couples, as well as between a teacher and a class, and it all starts when we look at others through our own generalized view of things and form a mindset about the other, as in “This is a squirrelly class.”
Pretty soon both parties are both trying to change each other and failing. This continues as they each try harder—but not smarter—and get increasingly frustrated. What is keeping them from trying something effective is what Carol Dweck at Stanford calls a “fixed mindset.” We tend to process new information about other people through old generalizations we have made about them, causing us to react in the same unhelpful way.
The class the teacher is planning for tonight is the class she had yesterday, not necessarily the one she will have tomorrow. So even though she may come into the room on a new day with a new and improved plan, the people she is expecting are the people she had been frustrated with the day before. This expectation usually sets the stage for a repeat of problems she had before. If we want to change the other person’s behavior, often we have to change our minds. Teachers learn this lesson early on in their career. They learn to press the reset button, or they don’t stay teachers for long.
Just as students tend to fulfill our expectations of them, we all tend to live up (or down) to what other people expect of us. So the biggest gift we can give our students, or our offspring, or our spouse, or that person who is driving us crazy at work is to treat them the way we would most fondly hope they would be, rather than the difficult people they have already proven themselves to be.
If we want to work with different people, we have to start by expecting different people. If the teacher came into class on January 4th saying to herself and at least half believing, “This is a new year; I am going to be new,” this might have an effect. If your children are getting you down—or if your spouse is “making you” mad—find a way to press the reset button and be new. This might give some other person the space to surprise you and be new, too. After all, it is a new year. Have a happy one.