Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Importance of High Expectations

Quite a few years ago I represented a young man who had been arrested for selling crack cocaine. He had been raised by his grandmother who was too old for the job of raising a troubled teen, but his parents were lost to addiction. During his sentencing, I described him (accurately) as "intelligent". Of all the things people said about him in court, including the prosecutor and probation officer, that was the only one that got a reaction out of him - he did a double-take. I suspect that it was the first time he'd heard himself described in that manner. (Ask anybody who knows me, or read this blog and judge for yourself - "intelligent" is not a word I apply to people who don't deserve it.)

I had a similar sense of some of the kids when I was substitute teaching. That some kids, perhaps most noticeably at twelve or thirteen, were internalizing very negative self-perceptions - that they're trouble-makers, stupid, lazy, etc. - but that they could be steered toward being both more positive about themselves and, as a related consequence, better students. I'm not going to start advocating mindless self-esteem exercises, used in some schools; that's not what I'm talking about. But an aware teacher backed up by some school and community tools (tutoring, a decent school counselor, mentoring programs) could make a big difference for some of those kids.

A while back I discussed the experiences of two Teach for America teachers - where two TFA corps members in the same school had very different experiences. One was quick to blame his students, other teachers, and school administrators for the fact that he was unable to motivate his students, unable to motivate himself, and unable to make a difference. The other was in full-blown TFA mode, a beacon of positivity, fully convinced that if he went into the classroom with high expectations they would be met.

It's not that I think everything can be overcome by teacher expectations, or that every personality type is suited to becoming a teacher of that second variety. But I do think that TFA is correct that a teacher with a positive attitude who is convinced that her teachers can excel is much more likely to achieve that result than a peer who is negative and cynical - or an experienced teacher who is negative, cynical or burned out. Students do pick up on what their teachers think, and I believe a majority will ultimately live up or down to their teachers collective - and often also individual - expectations. The type of drive and positivity TFA demands is most important in troubled schools, as they've become context where low expectations, negativity and fatalism have often become the larger school culture. Really, the first time a smart kid hears somebody say that should be in school, not criminal court.


  1. I agree completely. It is both amazing and heartbreaking to see students react when you say they are smart or inspiring or cool or whatever. Many are honestly shocked. Sometimes, you just have to tell them straight out that they can do something. I had two kids convinced they couldn't do long division. I just kept saying, "Yeah you can" and eventually they did.

  2. I'm shocked to hear Aaron say something positive about TFA. : )

    . . . but I'll concur with the point. I'm not sure I see a way to make it an implementable policy, but I concur with it.


  3. ... And George Bush loves puppies. You heard it here first... well, probably not.

    Seriously, TFA has some faults (and a weird way of trying to win over its critics), but that doesn't mean they're wrong about everything.


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