The Powerful Impact of a Positive Vision: Is a Future Barack Obama in Your Class?

December 26, 2008 at 11:06 pm 1 comment

posted by Rabin Nickens ’03, Speaker, Trainer and Educational Consultant

I originally wrote this for another blog of mine over a year ago, but it seems as relevant as ever, particularly in light of the historic (and to some, improbable) election of our new president. I wonder what teachers saw in a young Barack Obama when he sat in their classroom? Can you see one of YOUR students rising to such heights?

Once, several years ago, I visited another teacher in her classroom during a break. We were alone, chatting, when a student walked in briefly to say “hello.” This child was a current student of mine and a former student of the other teacher. Despite the fact that he often struggled academically, this child always had a smile on his face, enthusiasm for his schoolwork, and a friendly demeanor. As the child left, the other teacher wished him well and asked him to give her regards to his mother. Once he was gone, she turned to me and smiled pleasantly saying, “Isn’t he such a sweet boy? It’s a shame because you know he’s just gonna end up on the corner and not really amount to anything.”

I don’t know what struck me more – that this teacher honestly felt this way, or the fact that it truly seemed like she was saying it with no malicious intent whatsoever. She genuinely liked this child. He had always been respectful and cooperative in class and was never a troublemaker. Despite this, it was almost as if she was resigned to the fact that this child had limitations (which she must have witnessed, having been his teacher for a whole school year) and that these limitations would surely result in a dismal future.

Every child comes with a set of strengths and capabilities. Sure they have challenges, but how much of our focus as educators or well-intentioned adults is on their perceived “weaknesses” as opposed to a focus on identifying, acknowledging and building upon these strengths to take the child to their next level of development? Are we too busy comparing them to other children who seem to perform better? Are we mired in disappointment that they don’t do well on so-called standardized tests? Have we fallen into the trap of reducing a student to a number, a score, a book level, as opposed to seeing them as a whole human being? Are we more concerned about the students that make us look good in the eyes of our supervisors and administrators because they can show off a higher level of aptitude than the strugglers? Or are we actively seeking to plug into our struggling students’ aptitudes, as well?

What is our “positive vision” for each student? In other words, in what manner can we see them successful as students and well-rounded human beings – now and into adulthood? Are we able to look at a child and recognize something that they are good at that could bring them success and happiness in their life? And by “success,” are we limiting that definition to test scores or are we expanding it to also encompass real life skills and goals that are personal, professional, or social?

If we really can see this clearly, are our students aware that we have this positive vision for them? That our expectations are high? That we believe that they are capable? Furthermore, are we helping them form a positive vision FOR THEMSELVES? Even if we believe it, do THEY see themselves achieving some level of success in any area of their life? And what happens when we don’t have this positive vision?

One way to think of it is in terms of what some people call “the power of positive thinking.” Understanding that negative thoughts emit negative energy into the universe, that in turn perpetuates more negative actions. Well, imagine what happens in a classroom when teachers do nothing but have despair and disappointment in their hearts and minds in regards to their students and what they can accomplish. That negative energy goes out from the teacher amongst the students, and the children (who are much more perceptive and intuitive than most adults give them credit for) not only perceive these low expectations, but internalize it, feed off this negative energy, and produce only negative results in the end for the teacher to see. Are we surprised then that many children seem unmotivated? After all, many times they are just taking a cue from the low expectations of the adults around them.

Working with young people in several inner-city schools and community-based organizations, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard children say that they have been called “dumb” or “stupid” or worse, at home, by friends, or by adults in their neighborhood. Or even if nobody has said those things to them directly, they sometimes FEEL unintelligent. In these cases, how can children envision themselves becoming successful at anything? In impoverished, urban areas in particular, children’s sights may also be set low because much of what they can see possible for themselves in the future is shaped by what they see around them in the present – adolescents who have dropped out of school, are in and out of the juvenile justice system, or are hanging out on the corner hustling. They see massive unemployment in the form of out-of-work adults sometimes hanging out on that very same corner as the youth, with seemingly no prospects.

With that in front of them everyday, all around, where do these children get the notion that there is anything else possible above and beyond this type of existence? Something that they truly believe they can attain? As educators, we must understand that in many cases we are the only ones they can rely on for this. Ideally, some of this support would come from home, but remember, in the course of a week some children see us more than they see their own parents, so we have tremendous influence.

All this considered, while it might be difficult to envision something positive for a student when they are struggling to grasp the curriculum, when they are faced with so many challenges, and caught up in a system that makes it seem like their worth is directly related to a test score, it is still worth attempting. Sometimes it might require digging deeper, getting to know our students better, beyond just the way they are while sitting at a desk listening to us talk. It might mean devoting some time to observing them play at recess. Having a meal with them once and awhile in the lunchroom. Chatting with them casually during reading time. There’s a good chance that you discover some hidden talents or interests that could be developed, such as child who is a wonderful artist who doodles complex figures in their notebooks; a compelling speaker who can convince their friends to follow their lead; a compassionate classmate whom everyone tells their secrets to; or a humorous writer who can make you laugh from the secret notes you catch them passing.

Can you envision that doodler as an architect or video game designer? Can you see how that note-passer might become an award-winning satirical novelist? Do you believe that the helpful child might save someone’s life one day as a counselor or therapist? Or that the persuasive student might someday lead the nation? And can you see yourself telling that child your sincere belief that this is absolutely possible for them, if they so choose? Envision how powerful that would be.

Rabin Nickens, M.S. Ed. ’03, is a speaker, trainer, and consultant specializing in education and cross-cultural competency. She is the author of the upcoming book “The Playmaking Way: Using Dramatic Arts to Support Young Readers and Writers.” She can be reached via email at

Entry filed under: classrooms, social-emotional learning, standards.

Reading Outside the Box: Ideas Wanted! Practice, Policy, Philosophy: Sharing Bank Street on a National Level

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Steve Borsch  |  January 9, 2009 at 11:35 am

    What a poignant post. Too many times it’s so tough to find that burning ember inside of a student that — with a few, gentle puffs of air on it — ignite into a fire of passion.

    Thought you’d be interested in a post just published on our blog…that was sparked by your post:

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