The "Belief Gap" Prevents Teachers from Seeing the True Potential of Students of Color

by Lee-Ann Stephens

In our current education system, we often struggle with something called the belief gap, or the persistent and deep divide between what parents believe their children are capable of and what some elected leadership, through word and deed, believe the very same kids can do. I recognized the belief gap playing out in my school before I knew the formal term.

Though many teachers declare that all children can learn and achieve at high levels, I’ve always felt there were teachers who, deep down, believed otherwise. I considered it a “teaching gap.” Over the past year, I started looking into it and discussing it with the African American and Latino students that I coach in honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

I cried as they spoke of their experiences:

I am smarter than my teachers think I am.

Teachers are surprised when I do get good grades. I am praised with comments like, “You did a good job.” Those comments aren’t directed to the white students, though. The expectation is that the white students will do well and I won’t.

I hold myself to a higher standard than my teachers do.

With each word, I felt my students’ disappointment, frustration, and anger. Unfortunately, I could not stop my own disappointment, frustration, and anger from brimming over. These young people are carrying an unbelievably heavy burden.

It is not only unfair, but also tragic that these students must carry the burden of constantly trying to prove they belong, persistently working against the false narrative that African American and Latino students are not academically motivated.

I know my students. I know how important school is to them and how much success matters. These students came to study with me over spring break. That shows me there’s another story about them to be told, if only teachers knew who they were.

I am not blaming all of my colleagues or all teachers. I know that many do everything they can to build relationships and meet students’ academic needs. But I do see evidence of the belief gap in my school environment and culture. When I brought this up to other teachers, some weren’t familiar with it. The terminology is new, but the narrative is not – this notion that we must fix our black and brown kids because all of them are at risk for failure. As long as that narrative persists, then teachers will continue looking for students’ deficits instead of their assets when they enter the classroom.

We say that we believe all kids can learn, but the question is whether we will do everything in our power to ensure that happens. As educators, we must do better by our youth—from the students struggling with basic literacy to those navigating higher-level courses. Regardless of what end of the spectrum they fall on, too many are trying to fit into a system that is unwilling to make room for them.

To close the belief gap, as educators, we must first examine what we truly believe about children of color and what we need to acknowledge and address. We must reflect on our actions, how we react and respond to students, and how we teach.

We must also ask our students for feedback. We cannot be afraid to find out if we are treating students differently. We should also ask colleagues to observe us.

Finally, we must know our students’ stories. One of my students works many hours to help take care of her siblings. In her words, “I don’t want the standards lowered for me; I just want them to know what is happening in my life.” Don’t imprison them by their circumstances. Effective teaching requires us to know who students are, so we can better understand how they learn and what they need.

These should be two-way conversations. Students can even initiate them in a respectful way, either before or after class.

Yes, this is a touchy subject. Who wants to acknowledge that they have lower expectations or misplaced assumptions based on what society tells them to believe? However, until we address what we really believe, we will have not only a belief gap or a teaching gap, but also an achievement gap. Stereotypes will persist and students will continue to find themselves in an environment of low expectations.

Closing the belief gap requires opening minds and hearts. As educators and practitioners, we owe it to our students to consider the messages we send in how we teach. High standards for all students should be more than a casual phrase: It should be something that students can see, feel, and believe.

Photo: Shutterstock

Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 25 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. She currently serves as a teacher on special assignment with the St. Louis Park School District in Minnesota. She serves Latino and African American high school students who are enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors classes. She previously served as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University and she served on Minnesota’s Board of Teaching.

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