Letters & Opinion

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and how it Works in the Classroom

Dr. Claudia J. Fevrier
By Dr. Claudia J. Fevrier

“RICH man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer…,” to quote a line from Josephine Preston Peabody’s (an American poet and dramatist) poem. Let us discuss this quote in light of the topic, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and how it Works in the Classroom.

What forces shape a learner’s characteristics, personality, ability, interests, desires, social attitudes, and goals? Simply put, what are the factors that determine what a student becomes? Could that student become either a rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer or…? That question, however simple it may sound, is very broad.

Nevertheless, consideration of the forces that shape the student’s characteristics, personality, ability, interests, desires, social attitudes, and goals inevitably causes us to focus on a very important issue: the self-fulfilling prophecy and how it works in the classroom. The self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Hughes et al. (2019), “occurs when our expectations or predictions play a causal role in bringing about the events we predict” (p. 48). In other words, it is simply the outcome of a situation being influenced by our thinking, either negatively or positively; it is all about the ways our perception affects the actions we take. How, then, can the self-fulfilling prophecy influence teachers’ actions in the classroom?

In practice, usually at the beginning of a school year, some teachers tend to have unreasonable expectations for certain students who are entrusted to their care which, through the teacher-student social interactions, cause those students to behave in such a manner. The students’ behaviour, in turn, confirms the teachers’ originally false (however, now true) expectations of them.

Consider a classic example of a student (whom I shall call Tina) I encountered many years ago. I first met Tina at the end of her third-grade class at an elementary school in Castries, after her mother accidentally met me one day and lamented that her younger daughter was unable to learn (unlike her older one who was at the St. Joseph’s Convent Secondary School), and that her chances of success at the Common Entrance Examinations were minimal. As a language and literacy education researcher and lecturer at the Division of Teacher Education, Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC), I formally articulated my intentions to Tina’s parents, school principal, and class teacher regarding my interest in conducting a case study to assist the child. With no hesitation, I was granted permission to conduct the study on Tina.

I, then, visited Tina’s school to obtain an overall assessment of her learning ability. My role at the initial stage of my research was that of “Researcher as Videocamera,” a phrase coined by Boostrom (1994). I was like a “sponge” absorbing whatever I could in and out of Tina’s classroom; taking in everything unselectively. Tina’s teacher, in our informal conversation, expressed that Tina just could not learn, and that she would definitely be unable to pass the Common Entrance Examinations in a few years’ time to get into a secondary school.

Seemingly, Tina was a lost case–no chance of succeeding in life! I observed a high degree of frustration as the teacher spoke about the child’s exceptionally low academic performance, which was way below grade level. Also, I informally observed Tina in her class throughout the first few weeks. She seemed reserved with just one or two friends, and did very little talking. Strangely, during recess, she did not reach the inviting playground at all, like her classmates did. When the bell rang, Tina hesitantly took her turn on the queue and went into her class. There was not a smile on her pretty round-shaped face. She reluctantly took her seat and waited for the teacher to start her lesson.

At the second phase of my research, I returned to the school to personally meet Tina to gain a more profound insight into her learning ability. As I conversed with her privately, she revealed the many difficulties she faced in class on a daily basis. What left an indelible impression on me for years to come were the following words Tina uttered: “My teacher is always telling me I cannot learn and she shouts at me, and some of the children are laughing at me in the class,” and she, then, burst into tears.

Generally, my research findings regarding Tina’s academic performance, both formally and informally, revealed that Tina had a serious reading problem (however, remediable) which affected her overall academic performance. She also displayed a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Her language arts results showed that her performance began to decline in grade one. From grade two to the beginning of grade four, she was an “E” student, which meant failure, according to the school policy. Research shows that the cycle of failure often starts early in a child’s school career, and that students who encounter problems in the beginning stages of learning to read fall further and further behind their peers (Strickland & Morrow, 2000). The authors also posit that a child becomes able to read on his or her own typically in the first grade.

Consequently, I planned, implemented, and evaluated a reading programme tailored to meet Tina’s reading, writing, and oral language needs. By the end of the reading programme, Tina became the best reader in her then grade four class. The negative effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy in Tina’s school experiences are glaring.

Notably, Tina later earned a place at a secondary school via the Common Entrance Examinations. Thereafter, she matriculated in business studies at a university, and has earned a Bachelor’s degree; a great success, indeed! Today, Tina is a manager of an organization in Saint Lucia. Tina’s elementary school experience is not an isolated case. Many students in Saint Lucian schools have either dropped out of school or suffered immensely at the hands of bad and/or unprofessional teachers who consciously (or unconsciously) employed the self-fulfilling prophecy negatively in the classroom. Those students were not as fortunate as Tina was to have had someone to rescue them. They were falling through the cracks deeper and deeper as they moved from grade to grade, and had no one to rescue them. How many of them became a rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, or…? Who became a rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, or…? How did they become whom they have been and are today? These questions are pivotal to the future success of the Saint Lucian school system.

This is only one of my success stories, as a lecturer, researcher, and an expert in the field of language and literacy education, which speaks to the issue of the self-fulfilling prophecy and how it works in the classroom: either for the good or to the detriment of students’ well-being and their future and, ultimately, for the greater good of the Saint Lucian society, and globally.

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