As an educator, you may not be aware who the Pathmakers are in your classroom. They are the ones who will overcome the odds (associated with poverty, race, gender or parents’ low achievement levels) in order to “make it in American Society.” They are the ones who will create their own paths, from scratch, because there is not one established or paid for by their parents. They are the ones who will be successful in life even if few believe in them. The notion of Pathmakers was popularized by Charles Harrington and Susan Boardman in their book, “Paths to Success: Beating the Odds in American Society.”

For the twenty years prior to publication, Harrington and Boardman researched concepts surrounding social mobility and “negative prediction defiers” – those people who disregarded the stereotypes that were used to describe them. In spite of the misconceptions and errors used to label these individuals, many went on to be highly successful. In their study, Boardman and Harrington identified one hundred middle-aged, highly successful people: half of this group was African American, half White; half female, half male. Half were identified as Pathmakers (neither parent graduated from high school and they grew up in poverty) and half were identified as Controls (grew up in middle-or-upper class homes and both parents graduated from high school).

I was a poor kid from the housing projects in NY and FL as well as the tenements NJ. My clothes were either made by my blind mother or given to me by kind people from various churches or social agencies. Neither of my parents completed high school and books were scarce in our home. Nevertheless, my teachers consistently looked past my poverty, my shabby appearance, my many bruises and expected nothing but the best from me. They encouraged me to succeed, to participate fully in class activities. They knew me, asked how I was, called my name and even visited my home on days I was absent. They placed me in leadership positions, encouraged me academically and let me know in many ways that they cared about me. I seldom heard a harsh word directed to me in a classroom. In school I was Strong Beverly. At my abusive and dysfunctional home, I was Weak Beverly, always fearful of the next beating.

Like the other Pathmakers in the Harrington/Boardman study, school and teachers played a major role in my “beating the odds in American Society.” For me, school was my safe haven, a place where I could be myself, explore my personality and my strength. Interestingly, I found I had a sense of humor, many friends and excelled academically. Teachers, the study discovered, served to provide the social and striving structures so missing in the Pathmakers’ home lives. Pathmakers remembered their teachers, their names, ways in which they mentored them and often the words of encouragement they spoke. For the Controls, they reported that school was less important and many could not name even one of their favorite teachers.

Another major difference between the Pathmakers and the Controls involved locus of control. Pathmakers held strong internal beliefs that they could control what went on in their lives, they took responsibility for their actions and did not attribute their success to such external factors as luck, fate or being in the right place at the right time. Nor did they blame their failures on other people. Pathmakers looked to their own internal resources, especially their drive, motivation and effort as the key factors in their achievements. This is a healthy and provocative attribution for one’s behavior says psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How we can fulfill our potential).

When people experience success or failure, they often attribute their outcome to one of a few factors: effort, ability, luck or other outside forces. These factors differ on their internal/external dimensions as well as on whether they are malleable/unchangeable. Attributing your success to your own effort means that you have internal control to increase or decrease the amount and quality of effort you are exerting. Effort is both internal and malleable. Whereas luck or depending on other people are not only external factors but you can’t count on them to be available when you need them. While ability is internal, it is generally considered not malleable – that is, you can’t change it much.

Armed with the attitude that your effort is the most important “thing” that you own, you are well on your way to becoming a Pathmaker. Effort is the most powerful of all attributions for your successes/failures, for it is both internal and it is under your control. There are many ways you can increase your effort: you can try more, work harder, work smarter, spend more time studying, read alternative versions of a complex problem, work with a partner or team.

It is interesting to note that the Controls markedly differed from the Pathmakers on this dimension. They tended to say things like: “I was in the right place at the right time.” or “I’ve always had a lot of luck.” Pathmakers seldom said these types of things.

The findings from this study give us clues for classroom practices. Here are some simple thoughts for educators:

  1. Treat every child as though they can accomplish whatever they put their effort toward. Expect the highest performance from each child but ensure they have the necessary skills, developmental level, resources, time and access to assistance before sending the child off to accomplish a task. High expectations must match the child’s capacity, skill and interest. Provide choices, lots of options for a child to find tasks and projects that match their interest levels.
  2. Treat every child as though they are your child. By so caring for every child, you are more likely to treat each child with kindness, love, attention and empathy. Remember that through our sins of omission and commission, we send messages to children about their worth, their role in the classroom, their importance to you and the class. Watch what you say and do, as well as your movements, facial expressions and your body language. Remember, you are a mentor to each child, whether you view yourself in that role or not.
  3. Stress EFFORT as the success/failure-attribution. Praise students for their hard work, their concentration, their use of multiple references and their completion of a task. Encourage students to focus on the amount and quality of the effort they are giving to a task/project. Ask how they can increase their effort. When they fail on a task, ask: “How much did you prepare for this project/test? How can you change for next time?”
  4. Diminish comments such as: “You are so smart.” “You always have good luck on tests.” “You are not very smart in math.” and “I really didn’t expect you to do well on this science test.” Do not stress ability and luck as factors of success/failure.

You can find many more implications for classroom practice in the references sited above. Remember, there are Pathmakers in every classroom. It is in your power to encourage them and empower them to be strong, capable and confident in their ability to succeed – in the classroom and in life.

beverly armento
Beverly Armento was a Pathmaker participant in the 1997 Harrington/Boardman research study and is Professor Emerita at Georgia State University. Inspired by the many teachers who mentored her, she became an educator and enjoyed a fifty-year career working with middle-school children as well as with prospective educators. She holds degrees from The William Paterson University, Purdue University and Indiana University. Beverly’s debut memoir, "Seeing Eye Girl: A Memoir of Madness, Resilience, and Hope," chronicles her childhood growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional home. It is also a story of inspiration about the teachers who empowered her and gave her the resources and spirit to survive and thrive. You can connect with Beverly through email, Facebook, Instagram or her website.

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