As an educator, coach, and consultant at CT3—an organization that provides professional development and teacher coaching strategies—I have traveled the country working side by side with principals who are passionate about improving their schools. To support these administrators and their tireless teachers, I read everything I can and am constantly digging through copious amounts of research to learn about the latest in school improvement. When a school I am supporting struggles, I don’t stop until I can work with them to figure out what the problem is and put a plan in place to fix it—but one school recently stumped me.

They were doing everything right, but they were starting to lose momentum. I couldn’t figure it out until one day in a self-defense class, of all places, I got it.

The School That Stumped Me

I had worked with the principal and administrative team of this urban high school for three years, and in that time they experienced tremendous growth. They were being recognized by local and state media for the exciting results the teachers and leaders were making.

During our work, teachers learned about the concept of having a “growth mindset” and participated in real-time teacher coaching, during which they received coaching at the point of instruction through bug-in-ear technology. Teachers were implementing high-leverage instructional strategies with proficiency and analyzing formative assessment data daily. An active culture plan was in place to address other aspects of school culture, including addressing any disempowering mindsets of teachers through coaching and feedback. They were doing what we know works in schools based on the research of countless education leaders. Despite these results, they were starting to lose momentum. Why, if they made so much progress, were they not able to sustain it and keep moving forward?

“Because teachers don’t believe it is really possible,” the principal said to me. “We keep showing the data about our growth, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Teachers really don’t believe that these kids, all these kids, have the potential to score as well as their more affluent peers in the higher-​performing communities. They really believe we have done all we can do.”

We sat on those words for a while before anyone spoke. An assistant principal said, “We keep telling them that we need to improve further, and they have seen it happen, so why aren’t we able to do more?” The principal and I reflected on this and searched for answers.

From Self-Defense to Self-Discovery

Around the same time, I decided to take a self-​defense course to learn how to protect myself in the event of a dangerous situation. The course’s activities forced us to recognize how we physically react to certain feelings of being uncomfortable, angry, and sad. We not only felt these emotions, we were required to verbally share what was happening in our bodies when we experienced these things. It was challenging to describe my physical reactions when I was uncomfortable, but the more I attuned to my body, the better I could articulate my experiences. We discussed what I now believe is one of the most relevant pieces of information for educators that goes unmentioned and forgotten.

Learned helplessness, the trainers taught me, is often accepted as a reality when we believe we cannot change the likelihood of something bad happening, even if it’s not true. In making connections to my work, I started thinking, if learned helplessness keeps us from believing that success is possible or positive change can occur, we educators might be the very ones stunting our own ability to create the change we seek.

Many educators have embraced the concept of grit, but they may often ignore the impact of learned helplessness. When an educator feels defeated or experiences instances of failure, they may start to avoid trying and become complacent. If we aren’t careful, our past experiences dictate our ability to believe in what is possible for our future.

My self-defense instructor linked this concept to the belief that we cannot change the outcome of being attacked. In unlearning our learned helplessness, we were changing the outcome, not only of a possible attack, but our likelihood of being attacked in the first place. This self-awareness was incredibly empowering. As a group, we made the decision to prevent learned helplessness from holding us back.

I found myself relating all of this to our teachers. What experiences have they had that convinced them that it wasn’t possible for all students to achieve at high levels? What caused them to believe that no matter how hard they work, it really won’t matter?

It wasn’t enough to teach educators about growth mindset and its impact on students. The principal and I needed to help them understand learned helplessness and examine their own beliefs. They needed to believe that the achievement they wanted was actually possible, but nothing they had seen before made them think that the future of education in their building would be any different.

Unlearning Learned Helplessness

We are just starting our journey on this new path. During the school’s initial professional development days, we decided to put instructional strategies, coaching, and test scores aside and started working on beliefs, bias, and culture. We examined books on growth mindset to understand what highly effective teachers believed, and we challenged teachers to compare those beliefs to their own. We established a culture of coaching as a whole school community by teaching every educator how to give feedback to one another. We studied research on the power of collective efficacy that determined that if 100 percent of teachers and administrators embraced empowered mindsets, they could achieve almost four years’ growth in one year’s time.

Although we had addressed mindsets in the previous years, what I believe we were missing was helping teachers to become more self-aware in what actually caused their belief systems and any learned helplessness. We had always reflected on what we believed, but we hadn’t explored, deeply, why we believed it.

This year, the school’s principal has planned various activities that we believe will support the work we started during those initial kickoff days. Through activities such as daily classroom walk-throughs and in-the-moment feedback, the administration is committed to transparent conversations about demonstrating empowered mindsets. During weekly staff meetings, professional learning communities, and real-time teacher coaching sessions, teachers will reflect on how beliefs are translating to action. They intend to collaborate and practice skills around what they believe, and explore why they hold those beliefs.

We will also hold practice sessions in small and whole groups planned to better enhance classroom management skills, and ensure the educators’ language matches that of empowered mindsets. During monthly professional development, we have sessions planned around self-identity, cultural relevancy, and how our own bias and learned helplessness continues to impact our teaching. In short, we are committing to constantly revisiting what might be holding each of us back and engaging in activities that require everyone to be more aware of what they are feeling, what we believe, and why.

School improvement is a huge industry. The research is extensive, and there are countless books, seminars, webinars, and professional development programs aimed at helping principals and teachers move the needle. It can be tiring and sometimes frustrating, yet we keep at it, choosing to walk forward even when it feels like progress is sometimes minimal. We feel the urgency because our students, our future, and our country deserve the best schools in the world.

In our quest to leave no stone unturned, we sometimes forget to turn inward. In putting students first, we take the back seat and subconsciously allow negative patterns to drive our behavior.
Real change starts with declaring a resounding “No!” to learned helplessness. If we can unlearn that, we can truly teach our students anything!

Carrie Lupoli is director of program operations for San Francisco-based CT3 and serves as an experienced special educator for urban districts around the country.