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Teachers Could be Making Students’ Anxiety Worse

Peter DeCosta

The anxiety that comes with feeling like an outsider in the classroom can hinder students’ learning and, ironically, teachers could be making it worse, according to a new study by a Michigan State University researcher.

Scholarship students, first-generation college students and minorities feel intense pressure to perform well – much of which is perpetuated by stereotypes that society, including teachers, reinforce, said Peter De Costa, assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, who specializes in identity and language learning.

And unfortunately, those perceived identities could affect students’ access to resources.

“If your identity is defined by your social class – for example, working class – you’re not going to have the resources that someone who came from a wealthier family might have,” De Costa said. “Students could also be seen through the lens of gender or religion, and if teachers already have a stereotype of students’ ethnic groups, it could advantage or disadvantage them.”

Instead, it’s important to realize how events and time periods throughout students’ lives shape their identities – something teachers often forget, he said.

The concept is called scalar analysis, which De Costa used in 2008 to study the trajectory of five girls at a Singapore high school where he taught.

In his study, published in the journal Linguistics and Education, De Costa illustrates his argument with the story of Daniella, a high-achieving student from Vietnam who came to the high school on a government-issued scholarship.

While Daniella was at the top of her class in Vietnam, she was simply average in Singapore. Yet, because of her perceived elite status, envious students often excluded Daniella from classroom conversations and activities. Eventually, she crumbled under pressure and became even more socially isolated.

Daniella’s story may have turned out differently if her peers and teachers had better understood the many layers of Daniella, which in turn could have relieved her self-induced anxiety, De Costa said.

Those layers: pre-2008, as an only child whose parents viewed her as a ticket to a better life; a mediocre student in 2008; and post-2008, where she envisioned moving to the United States to live a better life, but failed.

“For someone who’s used to being the star in her previous school, this was terrible for her,” De Costa said. “Daniella went from high profile to invisible. Essentially, Daniella moved from princess to nobody.”

So what should teachers do?

For starters: Don’t judge a book by its cover. In addition, teachers should explore resources for all students, De Costa said. And, why not turn such experiences into teaching moments for students?

“As teachers, we need to be committed to educational justice and rethink how we position our students,” he said. “It’s not always so simple and our perception matters.”

De Costa guest edited this special edition of the journal with Suresh Canagarajah of Pennsylvania State University.

Kristen Parker, Peter De Costa via MSU Today

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