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Interrupting Deficit Mindset - Strategies for Communication

It happened one day without warning as I sat in a shared team lounge. The group of teachers next to me was discussing student progress with a shared novel, and one member of the team threw up his hands in frustration. “Look, we can talk about why they’re not doing well all day, but the bottom line is that these kids won’t read.” With that, he got up and walked out of the room.

The faces of his colleagues betrayed a variety of emotions, from anger and frustration to shock and discomfort. It was likely that some of the teachers at the table were in silent agreement with an idea that betrayed a deficit mindset, yet they were understandably unwilling to express such a sentiment quite as stridently. It was also clear that a few of the teachers disagreed with what their colleague had said, but were uncertain about how to respectfully interrupt such a problematic statement. While confronting anyone about the views they express can be challenging, whether their opinions betray a deficit mindset or something more insidious like racism, having strategies at the ready for engaging in courageous conversations is essential for protecting students and moving the work of any school in the right direction. 

Ask a Question

Seeking clarity on a statement that sounds objectionable often lets the speaker know that they’ve said something inappropriate. Questioning is a useful tool, from starters like, “Do I understand you to mean that” or “Can you elaborate” to both make sure that the offensiveness of the statement was truly meant, and to give the person we’re talking to a chance to rethink their ideas. Much of the time, the individual being questioned will realize that they do not have a sympathetic ear, and they will either walk back their thoughts or apologize and rephrase.

In addition, asking for more detail sometimes brings forth the speaker’s true intention, which might be different than it appeared at first. Suppose that a teacher says, “These parents. They never answer their phones. No wonder their kids are failing.” On the face of it, this sentiment is offensive in its assumption that “these” parents (often, a specific group is either denoted or hinted at) don’t care at all about their children’s success. To bring the conversation to a place that is far more acceptable, consider a question like, “Aren’t most people hard to get a hold of? I know I screen all my calls. Maybe we can think about how to reach out to people in a way that is helpful to them?” By phrasing our own response interrogatively even though a clear rejoinder is being made, it’s easier to move someone who expresses a potentially harmful thought from defensiveness to a more open stance.

React Out Loud

Sometimes, a well-placed response can work wonders for letting someone know they crossed a line. Even just one word can speak volumes. If someone shares a thought that needs to be addressed, we can react out loud with words like “ouch” or “whoa.” That immediately signals that the person who spoke has made a mistake, and it gives them the opportunity to understand what they’ve done and apologize. Typically, this is a strategy to use when clear harm has been expressed without good intention and we want the speaker to realize that their audience is far from sympathetic. In addition, if a situation feels unsafe or we are not equipped to have a calm conversation at that moment, it is okay to walk away, cool off, and seek counsel about how to proceed next. 

Challenge the Assumption

So much harmful thinking is based on assumptions that are entirely flawed. For example, a teacher might assume that a student fails to complete assigned work because she doesn’t care about the class, when the reality might be that this student is struggling to understand the content but feels too intimidated to ask for help. If this teacher expresses a belief about this student that reflects deficit thinking such as, “Kara is never going to care about my class more than she does about her phone,” think about politely but firmly challenging the underlying assumption. That could happen by using a personal example from a time when we were unsuccessful at something and were misunderstood, or by wondering out loud what might be happening in Kara’s life. However, opening the door to other possibilities is key to helping reframe a situation and move it from “never” to “not yet.”

Explain the Impact 

There are times when people express ideas and have no clue how their words can hurt others. At times like this, we can make a difference by explaining the impact of how students internalize the things we say. Suppose a student who is frequently absent is met with sarcasm from a teacher who is truly upset about their lack of attendance. We might overhear our colleague saying something like, “It’s nice to finally see you. To what do we owe this honor?” In a private moment, use the opportunity to model vulnerability by saying, “It’s so upsetting when students miss so many classes. I used to take it personally and say what I was feeling, and then it totally backfired one day when it turned out that a kid had just lost his mother and we didn’t know. I felt awful after that.” By sharing a story that is grounded in empathy, it will seem less as though the intent is to lecture a colleague, and more like a desire to help a friend by getting them thinking about what the results of such deficit interactions might be.

Throughout the course of anyone’s teaching career, it is all too easy to slip into thinking patterns that show both students and ourselves in a fixed and unproductive light. Being prepared to address both deficit thinking and the potentially harmful statements that others make (intentional or not) is key to producing the kind of change that equals a safe school environment for all students. Being uncomfortable might be hard, but it is far worse to let any child be continuously placed in a situation that does them any degree of harm. Holding ourselves accountable to challenging the status quo is therefore of maximum importance for both the wellbeing and learning of students each day. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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