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Stereotype Threat and the American Teacher



Teachers and teacher evaluation may be directly related to a construct from social psychology called Stereotype Threat and the relationship between motivation and teacher professional identities.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is the fear that we may confirm a negative stereotype about a group we belong to. From the wikipedia, we can read some of the history of the socio-cognitive construct:

In the early 1990s, Claude Steele, in collaboration with Joshua Aronson, performed the first experiments demonstrating that stereotype threat can undermine intellectual performance. . . Overall, findings suggest that stereotype threat may occur in any situation where an individual faces the potential of confirming a negative stereotype. For example, stereotype threat can negatively affect the performance of European Americans in athletic situations[11] as well as men who are being tested on their social sensitivity.[12] The experience of stereotype threat can shift depending on which group identity is salient to the situation. For example, Asian-American women are subject to a gender stereotype that expects them to be poor at mathematics, and a racial stereotype that expects them to do particularly well. Subjects from this group performed better on a math test when their racial identity was made salient; and worse when their gender identity was made salient.[13]


In another description of stereotype threat, Open Education describes that a recent study by researchers at the University of Colorado reveals that the issue of stereotype threat in the sciences is very real for young women. The study also reveals that educators can take some very simple steps to help reduce the impact of stereotype threat in the classroom.

Certain individuals appear to be more likely to experience stereotype threat than others. Individuals who are highly identified with a particular domain appear to be more vulnerable to experiencing stereotype threat. Therefore, students who are highly identified with doing well in school may, ironically, be more likely to underperform when under stereotype threat. A key feature of this phenomena was highlighted by Amanda Schaefer at Slate Magazine. In order to counter stereotype threat, individuals need to experience positive development and build confidence over the course of a semester. Schaefer explains that a slightly better performance on test one leads to greater motivation and thus leads some individuals to work harder. That work then transcends to understanding of the material that then leads to greater confidence and even further motivation.

Teachers and Stereotype Threat

A recent study by the MeLife Foundation identified that teacher morale is at an all time low. This was discussed recently by the New York Times and a blog at Education Week. It would seem that teachers may be in a no-win situation. They are scrutinized for performance, often evaluated by administrators and others who may not be qualified to evaluate teacher performance. When faced with an evaluation, teachers may face serious professional and personal consequences when they do not satisfy criteria in the evaluation rubric, as interpreted by the evaluators. This was very nicely described in an opinion piece at the NY Times, called, Confessions of a Bad Teacher. In this article, the author writes:

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

My belief is that if we are to avoid such things as stereotype threat in evaluating teachers, good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs (Johnson, 2012).

The current culture of teacher quality and evaluation may be leading to issues in how teachers view their professional identities. They may be living two different professional lives–what they believe to work, and what they have to do to make the grade. This may be especially true with innovative teachers, who have to keep their heads down and teach in a way that works for them and leads to results. After I achieving, their  methods may be accepted. This comes from professional pride and ability. The question that must be asked is whether these innovators and creative teachers can document and demonstrate data-driven instruction.   This kind of instruction may not be applicable to generalized teacher quality assessments, because what the teacher is doing is not generally what is seen.  Is it possible an evaluator who is given a rubric is able or capable of making this evident after reviewing the teacher for  55 minutes they spent checking off cells on a rubric-driven evaluation?


The Jekyll and Hyde Effect

In the Jeckyll and Hyde Effect (Dubbels, 2009), teachers reported themselves in a situation where they had begun creating two different classrooms, two different sets of grade books, and two different teaching identities – culminating in the classroom they show, and the classroom they grow. These teachers had created a duality in professional identity, meaning that they had created different classrooms and identities to fit the expectations of the mandates, district mentors on learning walks, district trainings, and Professional Development Planning, so they could work “under the radar” and “not be hassled.”

This phenomena seems to accompany most trends of educational reform.   In an article by Lasky (2005), it was posited that we may be destroying the professional identities of teachers by attacking their styles and beliefs about teaching and learning, and perhaps most importantly, their willingness to be vulnerable to reach kids and connect. Teachers expressed that they felt tension as professional educators, and that their beliefs about student learning often contrasted the current beliefs related to the culture of accountability.



According to Lasky (2005), this is not uncommon. In this passage (pg. 905) Lasky quotes and describes a veteran teacher considering leaving the profession because of frustration with “ladder climbers”:

Now there are lot of people who think this is a job to go to because the vacations are good, they follow the doctrines, and a lot of good people are leaving. The major message I was receiving was that you could make a difference, and we’re in this together, and it’s up to all of us to make the world a better place, you know, find your niche and dig in. And it was almost your job to do the peace and love thing. But the message now is that there’s no one to take care of you, you’ve got to watch your back, which is sad.

This teacher’s identity and sense of agency were in tension with the changing political landscape of reform. She found that she was not able to trust these people who were not willing to take the ‘‘real risks’’ entailed in teaching. One such risk is expressing one’s vulnerability;  such as knowing and standing up for one’s beliefs, connecting with students and doing all that can be done to help students from failing.

This can lead to a real hindrance in organizational and institutional trust, especially when it comes time for professional development activities that might require learning.  Teachers reported that they had seen “outcomes based education, constructivism, and profiles of learning” come and go. They reported that they had already invested a huge amount of time into these curricular approaches earlier in their careers, and were not willing to invest as heavily now that they had curriculum that worked for them. One teacher spoke of, “ I used to spend my weekends, afternoons, and evenings calling parents and correcting all for a .6 (part-time) placement, and I decided that I was working harder than the students and parents and not getting paid for it.” This teacher’s feeling was repeated throughout interviews with experienced teachers who shared that they had found an approach that they liked and allowed them to have lives outside of the classroom.

Identity and motivation

According to Dubbels (2009), formal learning seems to necessitate trust and identity. For Deci and Ryan (2002) the focus comes from work on motivation of basic psychological needs, with a focus on Autonomy — possibly built from early work by White (1959), where organisms have an innate need to experience competence and agency, and experience joy and pleasure with the new behaviors when they assert competence over the environment . . . what White called effectance motivation. If the individual gets social reinforcement and improved status in a relationship or community, they will be more likely be motivated to engage, and sustain that engagement, (Dubbels, 2009).

In order for a teacher to remain engaged in their profession and care about what is happening, and to sustain engagement , “motivation must be internalized” the teacher needs to identify the value of the behavior with other values that are part of themselves (Dubbels, 2009).  This internalization is recognized by others, and can be rewarded, ignored, or punished by the professional community, the students and parents, and administration and mentors for professional development. The same factors that we ask teachers to take into account for their classroom students are also at play in developing teacher professional development. This process of change includes public acknowledgement and awareness of making personal and professional change, and this public behavior can expose the individual to being vulnerable to the perceptions and judgment of others.









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  1. […] First, there’s the bad news: gender stereotypes and their consequences for real people are strong, old, and apparently fairly stable across cultures. Other venues outside education and the sciences are not immune to gender bias and imbalance, and several prominent men and women in those fields have written recently about the mismatch between the myth of the self-made (wo)man in an environment of broad opportunity and the reality of irrevocable trade-offs demanded in ambivalent-to-hostile environments. And for teachers in the U.S. at present, gender is also not the only locus of stereotype threat: “accountability” culture and complaints about public-sector workers contributing to suspicion about the intentions and personal qualities of classroom teachers, which in turn lead to diminished autonomy and a sense of inadequacy and alienation. […]

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