Henry Winkler, better known as The Fonz, once said that “Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” They seem like small, innocuous creatures, but, as they multiply and consume, they eat away the foundation of the connections and relationships we build. I think we all know why we shouldn’t make assumptions. But sometimes we aren’t even sure we are making them or what others are assuming of the assumptions we make. In my experience working with students, I’ve seen seemingly harmless assumptions weaken potential relationships between students and potential mentors. And witnessing those interactions has shaped how I’ve interacted with students and adults ever since.
Long before I became an assistant principal, I had a good deal of professional development on building relationships. In my mind, it came down to being the authentic you and appreciating students for being their authentic them. This means, of course, not making assumptions. But, more importantly, being open to seeing students as they want to be seen and how they envision themselves.
One day after school, I had three juniors stop by my office. I remember quite clearly that I asked them, “So what do you fellas like to do after school?”
One replied, “Well, I don’t play basketball, if that is what you think.”
I said, “Do you think I thought you played basketball because you are black?”
He replied, “Well, a lot of people do. And they assume a lot of other things along with that.”
“I am not a lot of people.”
“I see that.”
Feeling more at ease, each then responded with their own interests. “I play baseball.” “I run track.” “I do like to play basketball.”
I smiled. “Excellent. We need to make sure everyone is eligible to try out during the season.”
From there, we sat down and reviewed their grades and plans for completing any missed work. Since they were comfortable and at ease, they began discussing the other assumptions they believed were made about them, including feeling like people also assumed that they did drugs and stole.
Not five minutes later, we stepped into the hall to say goodbye. The four of us were still talking about plans when the principal walked out. He said, “Hey gang! You boys shooting hoops after school?”
I watched three heads drop with near silent “yesses.” I had never seen such deflation with a single, seemingly innocuous question.
Assumptions based on stereotypes are damaging, but so are those based on ability and motivation. One afternoon, my nephew’s speech therapist walked into his pre-K class and saw him sitting in the middle of the floor by himself. She asked the teacher what was wrong and the teacher replied, “He can’t follow multi-step directions!” (I should also mention here is that Charlie has Down’s Syndrome.)
Knowing this to be unlikely, Charlie’s therapist inquired further. “What did you ask him to do?”
“I told him to circle the car with a green crayon, put the paper in his cubby, and push his chair in.”
Those instructions were simple enough, and Charlie’s therapist knew that he could perform them. She knew that there had to be a reason why Charlie wasn’t doing what was asked. “What are they doing next?”
“Centers, but I won’t let him because he can’t follow my directions.”
Charlie’s therapist immediately saw the issue. “Charlie doesn’t like centers, but he does like snack time and can follow directions.” She then said very clearly, “Charlie B! If you want snack time, you will go get your paper, circle the car in green, put the paper in your bookbag, push in your chair, and go join your center.”
Charlie then huffed, stood up, got his paper, circled the car in green, put it in his bookbag, pushed in his chair, and joined his center. He followed every step of her instructions without issue.
Assuming Charlie couldn’t do the work instead of wouldn’t do the work was the problem. His teacher had decided to simply let Charlie sit alone instead of figuring out the issue. That assumption of Charlie’s skill level left unchecked could have set the bar low for him, directly impacting his future achievement and potential.
Assumptions are indeed like the termites of relationships. They make our personal connections rocky from the start, and they eat away at our relationships. As educators, we are responsible for so much more than our students’ academic development. Whether we like it or not, our relationships with our students determine whether they flourish or wither within our classroom walls. And, if we allow assumptions to erode those relationships, we’ve lost before we even begin.