The Power of Teacher Belief
Change is something the world has had to come to grips with over the past six months. This is especially true in our schools. It’s hard to overstate just how pervasive the shifts have been, from a near-overnight pivot to online education in March 2020 to this summer’s uncertainty about what the 2020–2021 school year would look like, to the current options of in-person, hybrid, or remote learning.
There has also been a renewed focus on issues of equity in this country over the past months, brought to the fore by the pandemic and then by the racial justice protests that followed the death of George Floyd. For teachers, the need to ensure that students feel safe, respected, and significant in our classrooms has never been more crucial. According to Rochmes et al. (2017), “Schools are the primary institution by which governments in the U.S. work to reduce the link between social background and educational achievement, with the implication that reducing inequalities in educational opportunities across students will also chart a path toward reducing other inequalities in society” (p. 6). More than ever, teachers play a vital role for students, and not only in educating them. They are providing much-needed support for social-emotional learning and for equity in schools.
It’s no surprise that teachers are at the forefront of these changes. Any genuine and lasting change in schools and classrooms begins with teachers, which is why educational reforms typically focus on the work of teachers (Datnow & Castellano, 2000). Often considered “the centerpiece of educational change” (Poplawski & Gerstner, 2020, p. 3), teachers are a powerful force for change, especially when two factors are in place: When teachers collaborate and when they have a strong sense of collective efficacy.
Collective teacher efficacy, or teachers’ mutual belief that they are successful in their shared work in their school, is the most impactful factor influencing student achievement. Collective efficacy has more than triple the impact on and ability to predict student success than socioeconomic status, home environment, and student motivation taken separately (Hattie, 2016, as cited in Donohoo et al., 2018). That shared teacher belief doesn’t develop overnight. Goddard et al. (2015) found that teacher beliefs around collective efficacy improved through strong instructional leadership from administrators and consistent opportunities for formal teacher collaboration, such as structured professional learning and opportunities to observe colleagues. In turn, this strong sense of collective efficacy yielded improved student achievement.
Teacher belief is clearly impactful, but while committing to equity is an important place to start, real change is about more than simply believing in it. Those core beliefs need to catalyze actions to make a difference. In a 2017 study, Rochmes et al. found that “nearly all teachers” expressed “strong support for reducing inequalities,” but that many of those same educators “do not endorse strategies to meet goals aligned with closing racial and socioeconomic inequality” (p. 6). The vital next step is merging beliefs with practices that create classrooms and schools where students feel a part of the community, feel significant, and find joy. Safe spaces like these have a significant impact for students, both in the short term and the long term: “Access to high-quality, equitable learning environments that respond to each child’s needs, assets, culture, and stage development can help mitigate stresses and provide a pathway to a more equitable future” (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2019).
That “more equitable future” starts in classrooms where teachers believe in reducing inequities through actionable practices. For example, discipline is a significant source of inequity, and it’s been proven that disparities along racial lines in school discipline as well as in the justice system exist. A 2020 study found that participating in Responsive Classroom courses significantly change teacher beliefs, particularly their thinking around the goal of discipline and the goodness of student intentions (Poplawski & Gerstner, 2020). The goal of Responsive Classroom discipline is to teach students to be in control of themselves and to choose socially and morally responsible behavior because those skills help students to become good citizens who exhibit prosocial behaviors and demonstrate respect for self, others, and property. Responsive Classroom educators hold and communicate positive beliefs and expectations for all students and believe that problem behaviors result from unmet needs or lack of skills rather than the student’s character, family background, or intention to do harm.
When coupled with actionable practices like those of the Responsive Classroom approach, teacher beliefs in the nonpunitive goal of discipline and in the goodness of student intentions can be crucial tools for addressing inequities in schools. As Goddard et al. (2015) noted, bringing teachers together for professional development opportunities and creating a culture of collaboration are also effective practices. Responsive Classroom courses encourage teachers to reflect on their own beliefs and articulate how those beliefs plus their actions impact their classroom community (Poplawski & Gerstner, 2020), further cementing the impact of beliefs around collective teacher efficacy on students and school communities. The cycle of clarifying and reflecting on teacher beliefs and connecting them to actionable practices is where true change, in schools and beyond, develops. And it can all start with teachers.
- Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. (2019). From a nation at risk to a nation at hope. https://nationathope.org/wp-content/uploads/2018_aspen_final-report_full_webversion.pdf
- Datnow, A., & Castellano, M. (2000). Teachers’ responses to Success for All: How beliefs, experiences, and adaptations shape implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 775-799.
- Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The power of collective efficacy. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 40-44.
- Goddard, R., Goddard, Y., Sook Kim, E., & Miller, R. (2015). A theoretical and empirical analysis of the roles of instructional leadership, teacher collaboration, and collective efficacy beliefs in support of student learning. American Journal of Education, 121(4), 501-530.
- Poplawski, K. & Gerstner, C-C. (2020). Teacher belief study: Analysis of how effectively teachers acquire and strengthen beliefs aligned with Responsive Classroom practices after attending a four-day Responsive Classroom course. Center for Responsive Schools, Inc.
- Rochmes, J., Penner, E., & Loeb, S. (2017). Educators as “Equity Warriors.” CEPA Working Paper No. 17-11. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.