Deborah Oyine Aluh


The topic of how the teachers you encounter can shape your life, both inside and outside the classroom, has lurked around in my mind for a while. I’ve had my fair share of unpleasant teachers throughout my academic journey, from primary school all the way to my highest postgraduate degree. From the primary school teachers who would incite the entire class to laugh at and ridicule anyone who couldn’t answer their questions correctly to the university lecturers who would intimidate the whole class by asking random questions and then subjecting the unfortunate students who couldn’t answer correctly to the embarrassment of standing for the entire lecture while everyone else remained seated. Yet, none of these have left as profound an impact on me as the teachers I recently encountered in my adult life.

I will start my tale with the first teacher. Let`s call her Ms. A. A convenient moniker since she taught A-level Portuguese. I was enrolled in a government-subsidized Portuguese class, which was always at night since most beneficiaries of this program were immigrants who had to work or study during the day. This class attracted a diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds and nationalities. There were people of all ages and professions, including delivery boys who would come to class with their delivery gear, IT consultants, students, and even retirees. Despite our varied circumstances, we all shared a common goal – to learn the Portuguese language. Ms. A was absolutely amazing. Her incredible kindness and patience with every single person in the class broke down the barriers of diversity. Even though the class was quite large, she made sure that every person received the attention and support they needed. By the time the three months of the A-level class came to an end, we had become like one big family. Ms. A’s impact on me was so profound that I found myself inspired to write poems in Portuguese to express my deep gratitude. This was an entirely new experience for me, as I had never composed a poem for any of my teachers before. It made me reflect on how different my life would have been if all my teachers were like Ms. A.

My incredible encounter with this teacher served as the inspiration for my decision to enrol in B-level Portuguese at the same school a few months later, despite the inconvenient timing – as I was knee-deep in data collection for my Ph.D. research. I was determined to seize the opportunity and enhance my language skills. It was during this time that I crossed paths with Ms. B. Her air of superiority and condescension was palpable from the first day of class. I felt we were viewed as unfortunate immigrants that she was graciously assisting, and it was expected of us to display impeccable behaviour to merit her support. On the second day, I had to ask for permission to skip a couple of classes as I needed to travel abroad for some conferences. My request was granted with a sarcastic eye roll and a nonchalant shrug. Upon my return and reintegration into the class, I found myself utterly lost despite having only missed four sessions. I assumed that a couple of hours of study would be enough to catch up, but I was unaware that this was merely the start of my challenges. B-level Portuguese turned out to be more challenging than I expected, and the additional stress of traveling around the country for my Ph.D. data collection left me completely drained during those late-night classes.

When it was my turn during Ms. B’s Q&A sessions, I continuously stumbled, either mispronouncing words or using the wrong tenses. She showed no kindness whatsoever; after all, I was the one who missed her classes, and she had no intention of recapping anything for me. It didn’t matter that my absence was not for leisure, and I had sought her permission beforehand. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, coloured by my experience with Ms. A, or maybe Ms. B had a history of dealing with students who frequently missed classes, but her impatience and scorn were demotivating, to say the least. After a few days, this pattern became a regular occurrence, almost predictable. The more questions I failed, the lower the bar was set for me, and the less effort I put into improving as feelings of resentment and demoralization crept in. It felt like being trapped in a never-ending cycle of failure. And for the first time in my life, I seriously considered quitting a program.

This experience was completely new to me. One of my friends suggested that it was all in my mind. They claimed that because I was used to being a high achiever, I couldn’t handle not being one anymore. While I didn’t necessarily agree with them, I struggled to fully understand what was happening to me. Then one day, it dawned on me why the same students consistently performed poorly during my previous education. They had been labelled and shamed, and as a result, they simply conformed to everyone’s expectations – the teacher, their peers, and maybe even their parents. It was incredibly demoralizing, and if I, as an adult, felt this horrible, I could only imagine how much worse it must have been for those poor kids from my primary and secondary school. I decided to do a quick Google search to see if there was any validity to my thoughts, and sure enough, there was. It turns out that teachers’ implicit views of intelligence can have a significant impact on students’ self-perception, and students tend to internalize the verbal and nonverbal cues they receive from their teachers, which in turn can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Simply put, if your teacher thinks you`re not very bright, you will likely conform to that perception.

So, I stumbled upon a scientific article that went into detail about this phenomenon. The Pygmalion effect suggests that when teachers have high expectations of their students, their performance tends to improve because they strive to meet those expectations. On the flip side, the Golem effect occurs when low expectations are placed on an individual, leading to poorer performance. The Golem effect has a more devastating impact on low-achieving students, as they have no prior accomplishments to boost their confidence, unlike high-achievers who can draw from past successes. Do sociodemographic influences like racial bias play a role in shaping these expectations? Absolutely. However, let’s not dwell on that in this article for now, because these biases exist even within same-race populations. It’s crucial to recognize these influences and overcome them. More importantly, parents must not reinforce these low expectations set by teachers. Just imagine dealing with a teacher who underestimates your abilities and then having your parents validate those beliefs. That’s truly the final blow.

When I decided not to quit my B-level Portuguese class and exceed expectations, I knew I was defying Ms. B`s predictions. I fought my way through and managed to break free from the vicious cycle of the Golem effect that I found myself in. The moment I peeled off that label, like cream, I effortlessly rose to the top. I can’t help but wonder if teachers fully understand the extent of the influence they have on their students’ lives. One would expect them to approach their profession with greater empathy and professionalism, given the enormous power and responsibility involved. I know the common excuse is that underpaid teachers in poor working conditions will naturally teach less effectively, but I firmly believe that it does not justify creating a generation of defeated people. Maybe it’s just the idealist in me speaking, but teaching shouldn’t be a job you do solely to pay the bills. It should be so much more than that.


Get notified every time i publish a post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *