I can remember while growing up, my parents (in particular, my dad), telling my brothers and me that we could do and be anything we wanted if we put forth the effort. Good wasn’t good enough. We were expected to be the best! Well…the “best” relatively speaking that is. Regardless, we all knew that our parents expected great things from us, and nothing less.
You’re probably thinking, “Whoa! That’s a lot of pressure!” and yes, you would be correct. I can remember being so proud of bringing home a ‘B’ in a class, just to hear… “That’s good, but why not an ‘A’?” Oh, boy, were my feelings crushed! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the heck they wanted from me. I was doing my BEST!
Dad lectured us all the time about settling for average effort. I would often debate him saying that a ‘C’ was passing, so that’s good! That’s what my teachers told me. He always countered with the explanation that while it IS true that a ‘C’ is passing, it’s passing with “average” effort. He would ALWAYS add, “You are not average. You are better than that… You can be and are ABOVE average!” What?! Above average?!!! ME?? I was in average classes and the few advanced placement courses I did try, I struggled in and ultimately dropped, so, what the heck is this guy talking about? I, in retrospect, defined the word average. It’s what I believed myself to be.
Well, needless to say, all through high school, dad began to bribe me with money and gifts (Oh, yeah!!), while my focus turned more towards sports (oh…and other distractions of that developmental age..) than on my academics. Don’t get me wrong, I put in just enough effort to graduate and play volleyball! That was my focus during that time. SPORTS! I excelled in athletics and continued to be…you know…average in academics. But, I still made it to college, played volleyball, and went to my average classes while, of course, continuing to excel in athletics.
I knew I had a job to do, though. My parents paid a lot of money for me to go to college and I knew I had to perform academically. I was prepared to do my “best” and obtain those average grades in college just as I had done in high school. Oh, I followed the subliminal messages my parents sent to me! I went to classes on time and attended every day! Listen….I’m not ashamed to say, I was afraid to miss a class! I’m telling you, my parents could see me 500 miles away skipping classes!! So, I did what I was expected to do in order to receive those same average results I was used to. Only, for the first time, I received straight A’s! STRAIGHT A’s?! What?? ME?? This cannot be right! I’m…average!
You know what I learned…? Straight A’s can change your thinking significantly! All this time, all of these years, my parents had been telling me I could, but I told myself I couldn’t because, I was average! Now I saw for myself what true effort, MY effort, could do! My expectations for myself changed. I now knew that what I originally thought was effort was really my acceptance and belief of the limitations placed on me by not only society, but by, of all people, my teachers! Not all of them, but enough of them to influence the perception I had of my capabilities and myself. They instilled in me the perception that I was average and I should simply settle for that.
What I thought was pressure from my parents I came to understand was actually a manifestation of their own experiences and a shield from the indiscretions of the world they had seen growing up. Experiences from the Civil Rights Era of degradation and depreciation shed light on what I thought were pressure. It wasn’t pressure at all. It was simply their way of communicating to us that we should never allow anyone or any circumstance dissuade us from accomplishing our goals. It took me some years to understand that notion. So, now as a teacher of elementary school students, I share the same passionate message.
You know, we never really know what our students are dealing with when they come to us. We may have some indication or inkling based on the demographics of our surroundings, but we never really know. You’d be surprised at some of the stories I’ve heard from students. The reality of their circumstances is often followed by statements such as, “I couldn’t finish my work” or even more concerning, “I want to go to college, but, I’m not smart enough!” I find this so disheartening, but rather than feeling bad, I use this in order to fuel my own passion to help them change their circumstances.
This brings me to the question, what do you expect? What do you expect from your students? Do you expect them to achieve at the bar that we lower so often in order for students to see and feel success? Or, do you expect to raise the bar so exceedingly high that it is out of our students’ reach? Is there a happy medium? Some researchers suggest meeting students where they are. I agree to only an extent. I understand that developmentally, students need to experience success at their academic level, but at what point do we stop focusing on what we personally cannot change as teachers and begin empowering students to reach higher than normally expected in order to change their circumstances for themselves? We as educators cannot change societal circumstances, but we can control the level of expectations we place on our students.
I’m not suggesting that I have the answer, but I intrinsically believe that our expectations can present long-lasting effects on our students. I understand that societal limitations can be a great barrier for students, but until they develop a new mindset, an undisclosed mindset, cultivated from deep within them, waiting to be explored, they will continue to resign to the confines of their circumstances.
We need to pay attention to our students. Our students need us to believe in them. Not superficially, but genuinely and truly believe in them. They deserve the chance to be better than average. They deserve the chance to build a future for themselves. So, I ask you to please think about it. What do you expect?