Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I Think He Can


Deficit Thinking: It Is A Reality In Education...

The more and more I interact with educators from around the country, the more I come to understand how pervasive the deficit mindset is in the world of education. I have been an educator for almost 20 years and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard statements that start with... "These kids can't learn this because..." or "Those teachers can't implement that instructional model because..." or "This community of families can't do that because..." and they each end with something negative that is generally connected to physical context (and the perceptions about it), socioeconomic status or some other perceived disadvantage impacting students, teachers or the community at large. 

What Is The Deficit Model?

The deficit model is not a new concept in education and although it is traditionally associated with the labeling of special education students or students living in impoverished communities, the negative mindset (otherwise known as a fixed mindset) doesn't end with children because it also impacts the way teachers are viewed, schools are viewed and practices within a school community are implemented. For example, I have consistently heard about schools that are hesitant to consider a BYOD model to technology because of something that might happen or an isolated incident that has occurred that only involved a small number of children yet impacted the whole community. Or the school that doesn't want to use the reading or writing workshop model within their literacy block because their teachers aren't "ready" for it and instead receive a scripted program that delineates what should be happening every minute of the day. Or the classroom where children aren't encouraged to access challenging materials or concepts because they can't "handle" it. This is all deficit model thinking... considering the problems, pitfalls and cants before looking at the possibilities, opportunities and cans!

My Personal Struggle With Deficit Thinking... 

This was something I struggled with as a parent when I was considering coming out to my son. In the months leading up to that day, I heard the opinions of many people who felt my son couldn't handle the gay thing; my son couldn't understand the gay thing; or my son wasn't ready for the gay thing. In spite of those naysayers, I felt like my son was ready so on that day, I woke up with the opposite of a deficit mindset... I woke up with one idea... I think he can handle it. It was the day that changed both of our lives and one that still impacts us today. 

It had started just like any other Thursday during the summer. Went into work, did some stuff in the office, spent time with our main office team, walked around the building with our custodial crew and actually sat down and had an early lunch. With that being said, this Thursday was different. It was the most important Thursday of my life. In fact, it might have been the most important day of my life, period. You see, that Thursday was the day that I came out to my son. Over some fried onion rings and a warm loaf of bread, I explained to my son that I am gay. 

Coming Out... 

I have shared a lot of things with my son over the last ten years but this one was unlike any other. This one would explain why our family would be different moving forward. This one would explain why I had struggled so much emotionally over the last couple of years. This would explain why my future partner in life would be a man and not a woman. Although leading up to that day I had come out to many people in my world, I had yet to tell my son. Paul, who I had shared so much with over the years. Paul, who had taught me about unconditional love; Paul, who had shaped me as an educator and human being; Paul, who was the most important person in my life. I hadn't told Paul... yet. 

As we sat there waiting for our fried onion rings, I couldn't keep it in any longer. The time had come for me to come out to my son. An excerpt of the whole exchange went something like this...

Me: "Paul, after all this time, I realized I am gay."

Paul: "Oh. So that means you are going to love a man?"

Me: "Yes, I am going to love a man."

Paul: "Oh, ok. Well, you're still my dad and I love you."

Needless to say, I bit my tongue hard to hold back the tears. I had never been so in awe of another human being as I was at that moment when I shared my news with Paul. You see, Paul responded with love, understanding and acceptance. My son was "ok" with my being gay. In fact, my son asked if he could come sit next to me and so he slid over to my side of the booth, hugged me and kissed me and said, "I love you so much daddy!" 

That final moment is what I will always remember about the day I came out to my son. He showed such maturity, composure, compassion and love. That moment was what helped me realize that he could handle it and even in that incredibly difficult moment, he was able to access the opposite of a deficit mindset... he was open, positive and willing to look at things differently. Granted, it has not been all sunshine and roses over the last couple of years because Paul and I are still figuring things out but, I am so relieved that I didn't succumb to the deficit mindset on that incredibly important day.


Why We Must Move Away From Deficit Thinking... 

I share this personal reflection because I think it is time we move away from deficit thinking in education. It is time that we give our children the space to learn, grow, fail, try again, and succeed on their terms (with our support and encouragement)... not based on our preconceived notions of the disadvantages that impact them. It is time to consider all the things are children CAN do... not all the things we think they CAN'T do. It is time that we empower our teachers to make the best decisions possible for their students as learners... not just asking them to follow scripted curriculum or zero tolerance policies. It is time that we engage our families in meaningful ways on our journeys to becoming true partnership schools... not just blaming families for all the problems that ail a community. 

The time has come to embrace an innovator's mindset... an opportunity mindset... a growth mindset... a positive mindset... or whatever you want to call the opposite of a deficit mindset because our children, educators, school communities and families deserve the opportunity to do what they CAN!  

How are you going to move away from deficit thinking in your school community? What will you do differently tomorrow? Will you consider BYOD? Will you move away from zero tolerance policies? Will you include teachers, students and families in conversations about the future of the school community? Please share your ideas below...     


  1. Tony,

    So true and so authentic! Terrific story about your mindset when it came to sharing with Paul. I agree that our society often labels and pre-determines outcomes without being open-minded and willing to believe. Tony, you believed Paul would react differently than what others had said. You took a chance and it changed your life. What a great lesson that we can all learn from. The bottom line, keep the hope, believe in a something better and don't let fear hold you back.

    Thanks for sharing, Tony!

  2. Tony,
    What a powerful story. Paul's reaction is priceless. Often adults think children will react like adults when in all reality children aren't judgmental and are more open than we give them credit for. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Tony,
    A very touching and thought-provoking article. Thank you for sharing your personal story as a way of illustrating how exciting and positive life can be once we remove the deficit mindset. In my district I have been forcing myself to get back to the basics and have been asking the ultimate question of "Why" in regards to initiatives and in all we do. Acknowledging the deficit mindset and how it has held us back is so critical in the push to move forward and to soar higher.

  4. So beautiful. Thank you for this important post.