When I started working in public schools, I noticed two distinct attitudes in my coworkers. A minority of them started the semester by identifying the “bad ones” so they’d know who was going to cause trouble later. The rest refused to categorize kids. They believed all kids had some kind of potential good, and any problems early on were just issues that needed to be worked through, not something to define the kid’s potential. The teachers who saw “bad kids” as a fixed group had more behavior problems as the years went on. The teachers who saw problems to be worked through, on the other hand, sometimes made dramatic progress. In my second year as a teacher’s assistant, I actually saw one bully turned into a model student; it was like being inside a cheesy Hallmark film.
As the years went on, I found myself specializing more and more on working with children who had chronic behavior problems. The dynamic didn’t change. I worked in classrooms where it was normal for me to go home with a bruise at least once a week, and even so, believing that my kids could improve was a self-fulfilling prophecy, every time.
More about that in a little while. This episode is about Connie, a teenager who works at Whit’s End. Connie comes from L.A. Her Mom moved to Odyssey after a divorce, and Connie, reeling from all the changes, is hungry for a stable father figure. Whit wants to step into that role, but all the advice he has to give centers around his personal faith, and Connie isn’t a Christian.
In a letter to her friend, Connie describes how Whit literally can’t get through one conversation without bringing up the Bible. She hears about an attack in the Middle East and wonders why someone would do that. He says people have sinned since Adam and Eve. She wishes she could do something about it. He says he is, he’s going to pray. And, finally getting that Whit won’t let sin and religion go, Connie starts to debate him on whether humans are fundamentally good or evil.
Connie thinks that people are actually mostly good deep down. Sure, they mess up sometime, but all it takes to tap into that good nature is to really commit to it. Whit thinks that if you tap deep down, all you’ll find is original sin.
Seeing that there’s no way to solve this problem with debate, she decides to challenge herself to treat everyone with patience for a month. Whit admires her intention but is not shy about telling her he doesn’t believe she’ll make it to the end of the week, let alone a month. In her letter to her friend, Connie says how, no matter how patient she was, he smiled, shook his head and said it was only a matter of time.
If I can get back to my own experiences as a teacher, I eventually found out that my informal observation had been more formally studied. There was even a name for it: The Pygmalion Effect.
It was first researched by Robert Rosenthal in the 1960s. He found that if you told one teacher that their students had unusually high levels of potential, and then gave them a group of completely average kids, a year later those kids would be ahead of their peers. If, on the other hand, you told teachers their students had less than average ability, they would end up behind. Variations of the study have been done since, and they’ve all shown the same pattern. That’s incredibly significant. In the world of psychology, sociology and human development, so much can be affected by context and culture, studies are difficult to replicate. When something holds up after sixty years of research, it indicates that we’ve uncovered something significant about human nature.
Whit’s actions here are a perfect demonstration of why the Pygmalion Effect is so pervasive. He’s in a position of authority. Connie, as I’ve already mentioned, wants to see him as a mentor and father figure. He also has been primed, by his religious beliefs, to believe that Connie will fail. If you had set a big challenge for yourself, and your mentor was responding to every success with “it’s just a matter of time,” wouldn’t that affect your behavior?
Initially, Connie does quite well, and feels great. But after a few days she loses her temper when some kids at Whit’s End can’t solve a riddle that she thinks is easy. She feels terrible for hurting the kids’ feelings. She has just proven to herself that she’s rotten and bad inside, despite her best intentions. And Whit comes along to convince her that this one little error is proof enough that his view is right, and that without Christianity people can’t be good. In his words, “I just kinda shake my head and laugh when someone tells me they’ve made a promise to be a better person.”
This is another element of the Pygmalion Effect. Nowhere does the research say that students start being perfect from day one, just because their teachers believe in them. It’s about the reaction to failures when they inevitably happen. If I was with Connie in this moment, I would say, “look, you tried hard and did well for three whole days. I do think your first goal was a little ambitious, but you know what? This was still a great first step, and I’m proud of you. Set a new goal for tomorrow, and if you mess up, keep trying.”
The core of teaching is transforming failures into learning opportunities. Whit consistently primed Connie for failure, and instead of using her mistake to teach her something about herself and encourage her to try again, he pushes his personal religious beliefs on her. He makes her feel that, without sharing in his religion, he won’t be invested in her as a mentee.
Connie comes away believing that she’s a terrible person, and she might want to start looking into this whole religion thing. The writers of this episode see it as a happy ending. They wrap it up with upbeat music and everything. But all that stands out to me is that she replaced an honest attempt to be patient with a vague sense of being deeply broken inside.
Religion and spirituality can be a meaningful part of someone’s growth. But there’s a difference between saying that your spirituality is a tool that you personally use for healthy self-transformation, and saying that nobody can grow as a person without following the same religion as you.
I saw this in my work all the time. Once I worked with a Jewish boy who had daily tantrums; I don’t mean one scream, I mean ranting, screaming, sobbing and breaking stuff for over an hour, at least once a day. Once he came out of it, he could be incredibly sweet. He was bright and curious and wanted to do well, but he had a fragility to him. Little things, like a crayon breaking or falling behind in a game, could send him spiraling into one of these episodes.
I was part of a team of teachers, all of which came from different faiths. What we had in common was a determination to keep working with him. Over the months, his outbursts started averaging forty minutes, then thirty, and then he started talking about his feelings in ways that showed he was dealing with the underlying causes of his episodes. A couple of years after he left my class, I filled in for his teacher. I sat with him while he worked on a reading assignment, and saw him persevere calmly through mistake after mistake. There were a lot of things that went into his progress; accepting Jesus into his heart wasn’t one of them. It angers me that Whit, based on how quickly gave up on a vaguely secular teenager who had one bad mood, would probably have treated that kid as a tragic lost cause, if not outright possessed by the devil.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so angry about a fictional character. But what really upsets me isn’t Whit himself, but the fact that Adventures in Odyssey is creating its own kind of Pygmalion Effect. It’s marketed to Evangelical Christian parents, teachers and kids, with Whit framed as the ideal mentor.
Those teachers I saw who would actively try to identify kids as “the bad ones” within the first week? Often they did it along racial or religious lines. It’s hard to separate the two, because often being Black, Asian or Hispanic went right along with being Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Catholic. These students were consistently a lot more likely to get on the teacher’s bad side and never get off of it.
What’s my point? If you’ve adopted a worldview that says only your people are the good people, it’s not hard to create your own evidence for it.