Setting high expectations for your students and yourself can be the hardest part of the job or the easiest. Furthermore, being consistent after the expectations are set can be even more of a challenge. Considering this, I take the guess work out and make this as easy for myself and my kids as possible. I set the highest expectations and never waiver.
In the two previous schools I worked, my adherence on this issue never came into question. At the high school, I was known as a challenging teacher. In the magnet middle school, I was hired to be challenging and demanding for the program. I designed grade appropriate assignments and made the next step simple – just do it. There was never any question in my mind that this was not the norm everywhere. After all, didn’t all teachers expect their students to reach the highest levels?
Honestly, I should have known my blind view was not always the case. The middle school feeding into my high school was not the best. Under my state’s education plan, the school had fallen into decline and we saw huge changes enforced on the entire building. Many teachers left, some retired, and others complained on a daily basis of the trauma being placed on them. I was not sympathetic to their cause. I had seen some of the damage from their lack of teaching firsthand with my daughter attending the failing school. Other than her reports of constant boredom, short, un-challenging assignments, teachers that sat more than they instructed, and an apparent stagnation of my own gifted child’s knowledge, I also saw more conclusive evidence. My daughter brought home a test from her history class where most of the questions had the answers included. One that I have remembered since that day was, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?” Even my twelve year old daughter thought the class and the teacher was a joke. She stated over and over that her attending school there had no purpose; she could teach herself more from borrowing a textbook and reading it in her spare time. I agreed, especially when her final grade in that class was a 132%. (Math teachers: Is this possible?)
Even at my magnet middle school, I heard kids talk of the “easy” teachers and the ones who let them play in class the entire hour, but I never thought it could be a school (or possibly district) problem until I reached where I am now. On my second day of school, I learned very quickly that, despite the school’s motto of “Expect Excellence,” there wasn’t much being expected at all. What taught me this first new lesson? I sent home my Identity Bag homework. Out of over 150 students, less than half completed the work. Even more disturbing, when I asked some if they would like to try to recover the assignment by just introducing themselves, they responded with, “No, just give me a zero.”
In the weeks that followed, I heard the following statements from my students:
“Grades don’t matter. We will pass anyway.”
“We don’t do homework here.”
“It will be okay with my parents as long as I get a D at the end.”
I was appalled. I was disgusted. I was in tears. After just a few weeks I had quickly learned that there was an ingrained sense of apathy that had even the brightest students not caring about their ever succeeding in life, much less learning. They saw school as a place to be during the assigned time, where some teachers allowed them to socialize, others required them to just sit in silence, and some gave them coloring sheets or crosswords to do to pass the time.
Over time, I learned the reality of my district. Most students were below grade level, some as many as 4-5 years behind. Students could not read cursive, could not write complete sentences, and did not have any of the basic skills expected in the 7th grade, such as how to read a map key or how to find the main topic of a paragraph. It was sad.
Ironically, when the state tests came back in mid-fall, most students (even though on a 3rd grade reading level) had scored proficient or above. Many, including a high number of special education students had score distinguished. How? Were they testing naturals? No. It’s even simpler. They manipulate the system to stay in the testing game.
District-wide content posters were printed and hung in EVERY classroom (despite some teacher’s opposition) and students were taught to “use the information” around them. Rumors of teachers taking the tests for the students were rampant, and evidence that portfolios were written by the teachers could not be questioned. As I stated in one staff meeting, the students were taught to cheat to get to the next level. They were taught to look on the walls for the answers, to sharpen their pencils to check the test key, and to allow their teachers to “edit” their work, rather than ever learning how to succeed for themselves by learning.
In my first few months, I spent most of my mornings convincing myself that I had to go back, not because I felt obligated to teach, but because I was told the personnel director would not release teachers from their contracts and I could lose my license if I left. I was a mess. With all this taken into consideration, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I taught. I failed over 1/3 of my students in the first 9 weeks. I failed another 1/3 in the second 9 weeks. And I kept teaching, expecting excellence every day. I assigned homework, I gave challenging class assignments, I demanded written pieces and research by my students, even though they had to be taught the process. I refused to give up, and once I bought into the kids (because they always do pull my heart-strings), I took on a mission to teach them how to learn and to demand that they are given the opportunity to learn in their classes.
For the entire first semester, I went home each day questioning myself. I questioned why I was there and why I didn’t just give up, put my feet up on my desk each day, and shop on Amazon. Then I would answer myself: Because I am a teacher.
Finally, as the 18 weeks rolled to an end, the students began to come around. It started to look each day like some enjoyed being there, several showed concern for their grades, and even the most apathetic ones were beginning to buy-in. After fighting students, parents, other teachers that made comments about my hurting their kids by being too demanding, and a district that only appeared to be expecting excellence, I started to see hope. And on the second day of the second semester, I walked around my classes to check their homework and I felt success. Only 14 students did not have it for me to grade. Progress.
Expecting excellence is not just a statement, but it has to be an action. You have to be willing to hold out when success does not seem possible. You have to be willing to listen to parents yell at YOU for failing their child or for expecting them to do 20 minutes of homework when they have more important things to do, like their football practice or dance lessons. You have to be tough enough to be excluded by your co-workers when they feel like you are rocking their comfortable system of do-nothingness. You have to be open to allowing students to fail, when that is what THEY choose to do, even when it breaks your heart since you know they are capable of so much more. In addition, you have to work harder. You must keep up your strong front and continue to develop lessons you think might just draw their attention and help them get started in the right direction. It was the hardest work I had to do since I started my teaching profession. And it will always be!