Saying “No” to Learned Helplessness: What Self-Defense Taught Me About Building Better Teachers - CT3
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Saying “No” to Learned Helplessness: What Self-Defense Taught Me About Building Better Teachers

As an educator, coach and consultant at CT3, I have traveled the country working side-by-side with school leaders passionate about improving their schools. To support these administrators and their tireless teachers, I read everything I can and am constantly digging through copious amounts of research to learn about the latest in school improvement. When one of the schools I am supporting struggles, I don’t stop until I can work with them to figure out what the problem is and put a plan in place to fix it… but one school recently stumped me.

They were doing everything “right” but they were starting to lose momentum. I couldn’t figure it out until one day, in a self-defense class of all places, I got it. Learned helplessness, the trainers taught me, is often accepted as a reality when we believe we cannot change the likelihood of something bad happening, even if it’s not true. In making connections to my work, I started thinking, if learned helplessness keeps us from believing that success is possible or positive change can occur, we educators might be the very ones stunting our own ability to create the change we seek.


The School That Stumped Me  

I have worked with an administrative team of an urban high school for three years, and in that time they experienced tremendous growth. They were being recognized by local and state media for the exciting results the teachers and leaders were making.

During our work, teachers learned about the concept of having a “growth mindset” and participated in Real Time Teacher Coaching, where they received coaching at the point of instruction. Teachers were implementing high-leverage instructional strategies with proficiency and analyzing formative assessment data daily. An active culture plan was in place to address other aspects of school culture, including addressing any disempowering mindsets of teachers through coaching and feedback. They were doing what we know works in schools (Fisher and Frey, 2014; Marzano, 2001; Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi, 2012; Heath and Heath, 2010; Murphy and Torre, 2014; Murphy, 2016; Hattie, 2012).

Despite these results, they were starting to lose momentum. Why, if they made so much progress, were they not able to sustain it and keep moving forward?

“Because teachers don’t believe it is really possible,” the principal said to me.

“Say more,” I responded.

“I don’t know; we keep showing the data about our growth but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Teachers really don’t believe that these kids, ALL these kids, have the potential to score as well as their more affluent peers in the higher performing communities.  They really believe we have done all we can do.”

We sat on those words for a while before anyone spoke. An assistant principal said, “We keep telling them that we need to improve further and they have seen it happen, so why aren’t we able to do more?”

The administrative team reflected on this and searched for answers.


From Self-Defense to Self-Discovery

Around the same time, I decided to take a self-defense course to learn how to protect myself in the event of a dangerous situation.

The course’s activities forced us to recognize how we physically react to certain feelings of being uncomfortable, angry and sad. We not only felt these emotions, we were required to verbally share what was happening in our bodies when we experienced these things. It was challenging to describe my physical reactions when I was uncomfortable, but the more I attuned to my body, the better I could articulate my experiences. We discussed what I now believe is one of the most relevant pieces of research for educators that goes unmentioned and forgotten.

Martin Seligman, the psychologist who first identified the concept of grit and other character strengths that many of us in education have embraced, defined the concept of learned helplessness and the impact it has on our lives. Seligman describes learned helplessness as “the victim mentality a learner adopts when repeatedly subjected to negative stimulus. Over time the learner stops trying to avoid the stimulus and believes he is helpless to change the situation. This includes a lack of confidence in one’s ability and a belief that effort is useless” (Seligman 2006). He realized that our past experiences dictate our ability to believe in what is possible for our future.

My self-defense instructor linked this concept to women’s common belief that we cannot change the outcome of being attacked. In unlearning our learned helplessness, we were changing the outcome, not only of a possible attack, but our likelihood of being attacked in the first place. This self-awareness was incredibly empowering. As a group, we made the decision to prevent learned helplessness from holding us back!

After reading Seligman’s’ book “Learned Optimism,” I found myself relating all of this to our teachers. What experiences have they had that convinced them that it wasn’t possible for all students to achieve at high levels? What happened in their experiences that caused them to have a belief that no matter how hard they work, it really won’t matter?

It wasn’t enough to teach educators about growth mindset and its impact on students. We needed to help them understand learned helplessness and examine their own beliefs. They needed to believe that the achievement they wanted was actually possible, but nothing they had seen before told them that the future of education in their building would be any different.


Unlearning Learned Helplessness

We are just starting our journey on this new path and during our initial professional development days we decided to put instructional strategies, coaching and test scores aside, and started working on beliefs, bias and culture. We examined books like “Closing the Attitude Gap” by Baruti Kafele to understand what highly effective teachers believed and challenged them to compare those beliefs to their own. We established a culture of coaching as a whole school community, by teaching every educator how to give feedback to one another. We learned the power of collective efficacy leaning on John Hattie’s research of “Visible Learning for Teachers” (2016) that determined if 100% of teachers and administrators embraced empowered mindsets, they could achieve almost four years’ growth in one year’s time. Although we had addressed mindsets in the previous years, what I believe we were missing was helping teachers to become more self-aware in what actually caused their belief systems and any learned helplessness. We had always reflected on WHAT we believed but we hadn’t explored, deeply, WHY we believed it (Hattie, 2016; Hammond, 2015).

This year we have planned various activities that we believe will support the work we started during those initial kick-off days. Through activities like daily classroom walk-throughs and in-the-moment feedback, administration is committed to transparent conversations about demonstrating empowered mindsets. During weekly staff meetings, professional learning communities and Real Time Teacher Coaching sessions, teachers will reflect on how beliefs are translating to action. They intend to collaborate and practice skills around what they believe and explore why they hold those beliefs. By incorporating sessions outlined in Dough Lemov’s book “Practice Perfect,” we will have practice sessions in small and whole groups planned to better enhance classroom management skills and ensure the educators’ language matches those of empowered mindsets. During monthly professional development, we have sessions planned around self-identity, cultural relevancy and how our own bias and learned helplessness continues to impact our teaching. In short, we are committing to constantly revisiting what might be holding each of us back and engaging in activities that require everyone to be more aware of what they are feeling, what we believe and why.

School improvement is a huge industry. The research is vast, and there are countless books, seminars, webinars and professional development programs aimed at helping administrators and teachers move the needle. It can be tiring and sometimes frustrating, yet we keep at it, choosing to walk forward when it feels like progress is minimal sometimes. We feel the urgency because our students, our future and our country deserve the best schools in the world.

In our quest to leave no stone unturned, we sometimes forget to turn inward. In putting students first, we take the backseat and subconsciously allow negative patterns to drive our behavior.

Real change starts with declaring a resounding, “NO,” to learned helplessness. If we can unlearn that, we can truly teach our students anything!



Fisher, D., Frey, N. (2013) Better Learning Through Structured Teaching (2nd Edition). Virginia, ASCD.

Hattie, J. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning 1st Edition (2012). New York, Routledge.

Heath, C., and Heath, D., Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. (2010) New York, Crown Publishing.

Lemov, D., Woolley, E., Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marzano, R., Pickering, D. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (2nd edition). Virginia, ASCD.

Murphy, J., and Torre, D. Creating Productive Cultures in Schools (2014). Thomas Oaks, California, Corwin.

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism (Reprint Edition). New York: Knopf Doubleday.


By Carrie Lupoli, CT3 Associate

Click here to read more about Carrie Lupoli.

In the April 2017 “Differences, Not Disabilities” issue of ASCD Express, Carrie provided insight on how to hold high expectations for ALL students. Click here to read her article “High Expectations, All Students, No Exceptions.”

Carrie has written several other articles for our blog, including Why I Quit Special Ed…and am Proud of It, where she discusses supporting teachers to give all students a voice in the classroom, not just those receiving special education services.


Interested in learning more about Real Time Teacher Coaching, schoolwide culture planning or strategic principal coaching? Email us at or visit this webpage.

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