This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Jay Benedith.
During my first year of teaching, I was fueled by my passion to close the opportunity gap and my excitement to make it happen. Many people enter the teaching profession with similar high hopes and ambitions! Our education system produces inequitable outcomes for students — particularly those who identify as low income and/or as a Black, Indigenous, or students of color.
Unfortunately, too many educators become overwhelmed, jaded, or burned out as their career progresses. By my third year in the classroom, I became frustrated with how little systemic change I thought I could make as a teacher. After learning about the myth of meritocracy, the racist nature of high stakes testing cultures, and the unrelenting racial segregation of inner city schools, I began to feel like a hamster on a wheel.
Moments and circumstances like these cause great teachers to retreat from the frontlines of the good fight. We ruminate on obstacles and barriers. We may develop thoughts and assumptions that prevent us from cultivating and exercising full equity leadership.
I remember hearing some of my colleagues say,
“I can’t teach these kids. They are so far behind!”
“Parents never show up to meetings and events. Why don’t they care about their child’s education?”
“I need to focus on the kids who can pass the state tests. After all, my pass rate is a reflection of my worth.”
I sometimes found myself slipping into similar problematic and pessimistic thought patterns. Luckily, I caught myself! When I did, I felt ashamed and horrified; I knew it was time to take a hard look at the beliefs I held.
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Why do educators’ beliefs matter?
According to Psychology Today, “beliefs are literally the lens through which you view the world.” As educators, our repeated thoughts matter because they become the beliefs that inform our teaching practice and presence in the schoolhouse.
According to Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, teachers bring their whole selves to the classroom when they teach. Consequently, we need to know who we are and what we believe. While it is important to consider aspects of our belief systems that are obvious and explicit, it is crucial to uncover our hidden assumptions and implicit biases. This requires a deep dive into our identities— what Dr. Sealey-Ruiz coined the “Archaeology of Self.” In her words, this framework is “an action-oriented process requiring love, humility, reflection, an understanding of history, and a commitment to working against racial injustice.”
We are socialized and raised to adopt the beliefs of our family and friends, and of dominant society. As adults (and especially as educators), we get to decide which beliefs we want to uphold, which we want to discard, and which new ones we want to adopt.
What are limiting beliefs and how do they affect our students?
Simply stated, limiting beliefs constrain us in some way. These beliefs may be directed toward ourselves and/or they may be directed toward other people, entities, or ideas.
As educators, holding limiting beliefs is doubly damaging because not only do they hinder us from setting and achieving our own goals, they hold students back from meeting their goals and reaching their potential. Our limiting beliefs about our abilities prevent us from developing the skills, techniques, and perspectives needed to show up as our best selves for our students. Our limiting beliefs about our students justify low expectations for their academic achievement, it normalizes mediocre and uninspiring instructional practices, and it perpetuates educational inequities.
Here are some examples of limiting beliefs in academic settings:
- “Remote teaching during a pandemic is pointless. Students are not really learning!”
- “The district only cares about test scores, so I have no choice but to teach to the test.”
- “Students’ care more about social media and games than their school work. This makes it impossible for me to keep them engaged.”
- “Behavior in the classroom is getting worse and there is nothing I can do about it because parents and administrators don’t care.”
- “Children who are disrespectful must have learned that behavior from their parents or guardians.”
Here are ways to identify and address limiting beliefs:
- Practice mindfulness and curiosity. Become aware of your thought patterns and rumination. You can do this through mindfulness meditation. I suggest you build a daily practice. To start, I recommend guided meditations. Apps such as Ten Percent Happier and Headspace have a variety of guided meditations (some as short as one minute!), so you can practice any time, anywhere, and for any length of time. Mindfulness primes the brain to tap into the rational and aware self. This will allow you to interrupt and rewire unproductive thoughts. Ask yourself, “Am I exercising curiosity or I am stubborn and stuck? Am I creative and solution-oriented or am I blaming others and giving up? Am I using absolute terms in a negative light such as always, never, impossible, or no way or am I flexible and compassionate?” Write down your answers and evaluate them. Do they align with your values and aspirations as a teacher? If so, that’s great! If not, no worries. Continue reading for suggestions on how to correct your course!
- Get outside perspective. If you have a mentor or a coach, ask them to help you identify and dismantle limiting beliefs. If you are unable to find someone in the workplace to coach you, you can hire an external coach or consultant. In my coaching practice, I often “hold up the mirror” to my clients so that they can bear witness to their thoughts from a third party perspective. I ask them questions, paraphrase their answers, guide them through thought exercises, and share any patterns I notice. A therapist (or another mental health professional) may also be a key partner in unpacking and reconstructing your belief systems. It’s enlightening what such conversations can uncover.
- Construct professional development through an equity lens. Enroll in training programs (such as those provided by education equity nonprofits like the National Equity Project) in which you can examine your belief systems. If you’re interested and you’re able to gather the resources to do it, you may want to go back to school! Being a student is a great way to reignite your passion and compassion. You could enroll in a degree program, a certificate program, or in stand-alone courses. In addition to university settings, you might try online learning platforms such as Coursera or Linkedin Learning. Also, stay up-to-date on the newest literature and best practices in your specific field! This can reignite the spark and passion that may have diminished during challenging times.
- Find your tribe. Mind the company you keep both within the schoolhouse and outside of it! Ask yourself, “Are the people closest to me passionately engaged in equity work or are they disengaged?” If you notice a disconnect between your values and the values of those you spend time with, you’ll have to think critically about what impact that is having on your work. You should also consider if it is sustainable and beneficial to continue those relationships as they currently exist.
Ultimately, protect your spirit. Be intentional about with whom you share energy! Consider, “Where do I fall on this continuum of positive and negative thought patterns?” Identify the gap between where you are and where you aim to be. Again, talking to a mentor or a coach is helpful — so is investing in your professional development. As you go through this process, true members of your tribe will cheer you on and hold you accountable!
How can you determine what is in your control?
Some teachers who operate on limiting beliefs don’t know it! They think they are simply “stating facts,” setting boundaries, or being realistic. One way to spot limiting beliefs is to consider your locus of control orientation.
According to the American Psychological Association, locus of control is a “construct that is used to categorize people’s… perceptions of how much control they have over the conditions of their lives.”
Locus of control is a continuum. On one end are people with an external locus of control. They believe that their life outcomes are completely out of their control and are primarily shaped by external factors. This leads to what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” It also creates a breeding ground for limiting beliefs!
On the other end are people with an internal locus of control. They believe that their life outcomes are largely determined by their own intentions and actions. They hold their agency and their abilities in high regard. While both perspectives serve unique purposes, studies show that people who have a strong internal locus of control are typically motivated, fulfilled, and have a growth mindset. These are key ingredients in cultivating an equity-centered teaching practice!
Here are some ways to identify what is within your wheelhouse:
- Center your personal equity imperative and that of your school. Listen to the story you are telling yourself. Does it align with your personal and institutional goals of creating an educationally equitable society? Limiting beliefs are typically misaligned with equity imperatives!
- Read your job description and those of your colleagues. What responsibilities and expectations are associated with your position? What is assigned to your colleagues? Get clear about what it means to be a teacher at your school. Limiting beliefs weaken your dedication to equity work. Assess your commitment to the position and the ways in which you can strengthen your practice and impact!
- Investigate what aspects of your role are unstated. Talk to your manager about unspoken and informal aspects of your role. If there are any you are currently unable to engage in, be honest about it! Perhaps there is an opportunity to redirect your energy towards your official responsibilities. If you do have the capacity to fill the informal aspects of your role, seek out resources, guidance or other forms of support to strengthen your delivery. This can mitigate fatigue, burnout, and negative thought patterns!
- Create and uphold boundaries. Make no mistake, boundaries are important and necessary. In order to live in alignment with your limitless beliefs, you need boundaries. This may sound like:
“No, I’m not available for a working lunch today.”
“Yes, I am going to finish grading by 7pm so I can spend time with my family.”
“My classroom is an affirming space. If you continue to ____, I will ask you to leave.”
“I need more time to think about that. Is it okay if we circle back in 24 hours?”
Remember: Self care is radical and is not negotiable. It is an act of activism and survival.
Being a teacher has always been a profession for the strong-willed and the dedicated. Even during challenging times, there is always hope. We always have the ability to reimagine and reconstruct our future. Take the time and space to process your lived experiences and to evaluate your behaviors, biases, and beliefs. After all, if we believe that every child’s future is a worthy investment, we will practice true educational equity leadership. Limiting beliefs are steps backward and in this urgent moment, progress is paramount.
Ultimately, discovering, disrupting, and dismantling our limiting beliefs allows us to teach towards a better tomorrow!
I am a progressive educator and a passionate equity leader in New York City! Through J. Benedith Coaching Services, I facilitate interactive workshops, 1:1 coaching sessions, and group coaching programs. My coaching expertise is in helping Gen Zers, Millennials, and early career teachers manage their mindsets to achieve their goals. Over the past decade, I have amassed a wealth of experience in education as a classroom teacher, an after school specialist, and an instructional coach. Currently, I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, and I live in Brooklyn with my partner Blake and our mini aquarium!