Having worked for 2 urban public school districts, I have learned quite a bit about high expectations. Not the ones that politically motivated folks talk about (which translates into score better on tests than other countries; China is kicking our butt!!), but I have come to really see what high expectations mean for kids, teachers, and schools. It has so very little to do with “high” academic achievement; high expectations are all about how you value the kids you teach and communities you serve. The achievement actually follows the value.
Case in point: the first school I worked in had a culture of low expectation. The students almost exclusively lived in a housing project that was being closed down. The families who were not in the housing project were living at (or well below) the poverty line. The larger community did not really engage with the school that sat smack dab in the middle of a bustling economic hub of Chicago. We were mostly forgotten, except for noise abatement from the nearby major international airport and for bussing in Hispanic students from a nearby township because of our ESOL program.
The culture inside the school was as icy as the outside. No one had much good to say about the kids. They were dirty. They were smelly. They were ratchet. They were crack babies. They were a waste of time. I heard things like, “I taught his mama, and his mama wasn’t shit either”.
Yes. A teacher said that about a student like less than 2 weeks in (in response to me asking for help about discipline). I stopped eating in the lounge. Because Ma’am. New teacher over here! Can I at least know for myself who isn’t getting ready to be (ahem) shit?
Now, how would you feel if the community in which you lived basically ignored your existence? What would you do if your every move has been judged and found lacking before you even had a chance to do anything? What if nearly every adult that should have believed in you did not?
You most likely would not perform at a high level. You just might even strive to meet the low expectations set.
The most basic problem in a failing school district is NOT bad teachers who cannot teach content, it is the mindset that the kids you teach have no value. That they do not deserve a chance. That their mamas weren’t shit, and they won’t be either. If these kids hear it at home, then at school, the in the community at large, whose report will they believe? Certainly not the one or two that say, “You have value.”
And yet, that is the one thing that is inherently required to see students prosper. They must first value themselves before they can appreciate anything you try to teach them. You know what closes achievement gaps? Creating inherent belief in each student that “I belong where I am. I matter. I am where I am suppose to be. I have value.” Kids who feel out of place, uncertain, unimportant, and devalued will act like it. It is a feedback loop of me telling you you matter, you believing it, then you acting like it, then me showing you, you believing it, then you acting like it.
If you want to begin to see a culture change in a school, let’s start with with a change in how we value our students. That is something we can do at home AND at school that costs zero dollars and zero cents.