Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Low Expectations vs. Realistic Expectations

Of the many education quotes and adages I have floating around my head, one that consistently surfaces is George W. Bush's description of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." What does it mean when I have low expectations of a student? I see it sending two messages: (1) You're not smart enough to meet the high expectations that you see me holding other students to. (2) I've given up on you. The "I" in those statements could refer to me specifically, or to the "I" of a school or institution. I am honestly ashamed of some of the things I have let pass as "mastery" of content. It feels bigoted because it feels like I've already made the judgement that I've deemed them so incompetent that I don't think they can perform at a "real" level. It feels condescending because it seems like I'm lying to them to make them feel good about themselves. I feel like I'm no better than someone who writes them off in the first place. Maybe I even feel worse because I tried to earn their trust and then told them I didn't think they were good enough/smart enough/capable enough; the dagger hits closer to the heart.

But in trying to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations, I keep coming back to two questions: (1) What are high expectations? What does it mean for something to be rigorous? How do I know I'm challenging a kid? (2) What does it actually look like to hold a kid to high expectations? I can give lip service to my expectations all I want, but what does it look like in practice to hold those high expectations?

And those are the easy questions. Like every good adjective, "high" is subjective. I think most people would agree that high expectations for sixth graders are (and should be) completely different from high expectations for 12th graders. Sixth graders are in a different place emotionally, developmentally, and academically. You wouldn't stick a sixth grader in a calculus class and pride yourself on how well you're challenging the kid. I would make the argument that my students are in a different place, at least emotionally and academically, than other 10th and 11th graders in, say, Palo Alto. So what does it mean for me to hold high expectations for my students, given that those expectations will be different from high expectations at Palo Alto high schools? If my expectations are different for kids at my current school than they might be at another school, am I inherently succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations, especially because my students are almost all children of color from low-income families?

Then there's the piece about what happens when you try to hold students to high expectations. Let's say I try to be that tough teacher and hold my kids to agreed-upon standards of high expectations. For example, what if I started teaching my geometry according to IB standards? Kids would fail my class. Maybe that's being pessimistic, but I also feel like it's realistic. I know it's my job as a teacher not only to set high expectations, but to help kids meet them. At some point, though, the kid has to do some work. I don't know enough about scaffolding or adolescent development or motivation or any of that to get students to put in the level of work that's required for them to compete at the same level as those Palo Alto kids. And even if I did know, I don't think I have the energy. If I compare it to sports, I could set a goal for myself of running a marathon in 2 weeks, which is for sure a high expectation. Maybe--maybe--I could even meet that goal if I was motivated enough to spend all of my time training and drop everything else I'm doing with my life. But that's unrealistic. The response to that is, "Set a goal to run a marathon in 6 months--that's reasonable." Great, but I only have a limited amount of time with my students. The marathon they have to compete in is coming in June (or May, if we're talking about state testing, or February if we're talking about the High School Exit Exam), so even if they're completely out of shape, they still have a limited amount of time.

Happy new school year. How do I set expectations for myself that aren't setting me up for failure and/or burnout?

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