No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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A Note of Gratitude

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I don’t know what it is, but these last three months have felt more like six! If your classroom is like mine, then, the honeymoon is OVER! My scholars have turned from the quiet, unsure fifth graders they began the year as, to a group of 20 extremely rambunctious, moody, narcissistic children! Oh, there are some great character traits in the room as well. There are talented athletes, great senses of humor, very bright young folks in this classroom. But, man are they selfish! I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before! I know, I know…it’s the age. The fact remains that it is still a source of great frustration, especially when you work so purposefully every day to teach school and self PRIDE, which in this case, is an acronym that stands for Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy.

It happens every single year… I find myself comparing last year’s class to the current. There are as many similarities as there are differences. While I don’t have as many behavior challenges, I have one that requires a lot of energy! I’m exhausted when I get home every night from all the energy that he requires! I have many that love to read, love to do math, just plain love to learn. Then, there’s the handful that have great difficulty sitting still long enough for a 5-10 minute mini lesson. I can’t help but to stop and think about how my scholars are progressing this year. The year started out awesome! So, why in the world am I burned out already!!

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I was speaking with a coworker recently about how drawn I am to the struggling students. He shared that he could really tell how invested I am in my students. That I really have a deep love for all of them that he highly respects. What an amazing compliment! He added, however, that I cannot save them all (I think to myself [with a heavy sigh], “Why not??). Trying to save them all, he explained, will leave me exhausted and disappointed. He’s never been more correct. While I wish I could, I just have to realize, I do not have a cape big enough to accommodate every single trouble my scholars have, let alone every single child. I’m simply not equipped to.

I dropped my scholars off at their Related Arts class feeling exhausted and defeated, just as my coworker suggested. As I dragged myself to the mail room to pick up my mail (yes…I must say, I was a pitiful sight), I began to open my mail while reflecting on the day. Did I make my scholars learning meaningful today? I wonder what my scholars learned about themselves today? What did I learn about myself today? Did I do everything possible to make today’s learning better for them than yesterday? Today…{sigh}…I just wasn’t sure. It was at that moment that I opened an envelope that contained a handwritten letter. To my surprise, it was from VICTOR!!

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A note of gratitude from Victor! Not many words, but a very large message received!

If you remember, Victor was my “challenge” (and also my blessing) last year. He’s a very bright, yet troubled young man. I put every bit of my being into teaching him basic life skills and self worth. As you can imagine, my eyes welled with tears. My cheeks hurt from the smile he put on my face with this letter. What an amazing confirmation! While I read that Victor was thankful for me teaching him multiplication strategies, I believe in my heart that he was thanking me for so much more than that.

I’ve been fueled a bit by Victor’s letter. I felt good knowing in that moment, that even though he displayed a nonchalant attitude towards me and learning at times, he let me know that he heard me something, AND…was GRATEFUL! I exhaled in the moment of gratuitousness.

Just when I thought my teacher tank was filled up, a kindergartner stopped me in the hallway during dismissal. She is the younger sister of another scholar I had last year. She gave me a hug, then handed me a handwritten letter from her brother. What?! ANOTHER letter of gratitude?! If it weren’t before, my tank is definitely full now!

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Another note of gratitude from a past scholar! He inspired ME more than I inspired him! I’M grateful for HIM!

Here’s the takeaway… Be not dismayed by the seemingly unresponsive attitudes that some of your scholars may tend to display. They are struggling with a great many pubescent emotional and social battles. There is a strong need to belong and to roam among the “in crowd”.  For boys, there is the need to show they are the strongest and bravest. It’s like these boys are vying for the Alpha Male position on the playground! Even more concerning, the temptation to join gangs is prevalent among these young men. For girls, they begin searching for love in all the wrong places. Flirtatious behavior is booming among these young ladies!! They want to be the prettiest and the most popular. Sadly, academics don’t seem to find a place anywhere in any of this at times. That’s a lot, isn’t it? Now, add to that the abuse that is either witnessed or endured. The noticeable struggle for parents to make ends meet in order to provide adequate food and/or shelter for their families. There’s also the threat of families being torn apart by deportation and/or simply abandonment. There is the simplistic, intrinsic need to receive a hug, a pat on the back, an encouraging word, to simply feel…LOVED! These scholars are dealing with so much! More than any one of us could possibly imagine.

Find solace in the fact that, in those heated moments, when your scholars tend to make you feel unappreciated, devalued, and disrespected, that there are one, two, or maybe more that you’ve left behind who feel a sense of gratitude for everything you’ve taught them about reading, math, and most importantly…LIFE. Know that they just don’t no how to tell you.

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As I was composing this blog, I received yet ANOTHER note of gratitude from this young lady. My goodness! I didn’t mean to “make her an over achiever”.  I only wanted to teach her to always strive to be the best SHE could be…ALWAYS!! I think she got the point.

Failure is Not an Option!

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Well, I’m through my third week of school. Things are going well for the most part. Probably one of the best starts to a school year that I can recall. I have 20 WONDERFUL scholars who, in these first few weeks, have reminded me why I remain in the classroom.

Initially, I had 18 scholars on my roster. I had looked over my roster prior to the first day of school and was excited to see that I was apparently receiving a break this year from some of the customary behavior challenges I’d been used to. After working with some very challenging children in the recent past, including a visually impaired child with a sharp tongue and a tenacious attitude, I welcomed the break. Educators working on the front line will be able to relate to my exaggerated exaltation. However, as expected in the world of education, things change ever so quickly and as such; I received my nineteenth scholar on Meet the Teacher night. He is a returning student who is extremely excited to be back with us! He shares his love of school and especially reading with me on that evening! This is too good to be true!! I have to be the luckiest teacher of the year!

My twentieth scholar arrived bright and early Monday morning just after I began my introductory instruction. He is also a transfer from another school in the district. I have not received his permanent records as of yet, which is not uncommon with transfers, but in conversation, he shares with me, in a rather boisterous voice, that he is not good at math and he is very shy! This statement left me looking confused since he is far from shy and has displayed some mathematical problem solving skills. Yet, these observations, coupled with his over activeness and frequent off task behavior had now become an all too familiar scene to say the least. A prologue to the main event if you will. As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. This scholar requires a lot of time and attention and I slowly realize, HE is my purpose this year.

On the first day of school, I read a book to my scholars, entitled “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day” by Dr. Seuss for our first morning meeting. I used to read this book to my own children when they were younger. I found it appropriate for my fifth graders because every year, a handful of scholars enter my class claiming they don’t know anything, much like my twentieth scholar. The story is about creative teaching and thinking. The tale celebrates originality, differences, and uniqueness, but also reassures that each of the scholars in the story has everything they need not only to be successful when taking high stakes assessments, but also to be successful in life. What an amazing way to begin the school year! We acknowledged each other’s differences but I also assured all of them that they too are bright, intelligent scholars that can and will be successful, but they had to trust me, trust each other, and most importantly, trust themselves.

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In the days to follow, we would talk a lot about our school “PRIDE” (that is, Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy) and our Scholar Statement. We would discuss in great length each attribute of PRIDE and each line of the Scholar Statement. This is my second year using the statement and I have found it to be a great guiding principle in my classroom. The statement reads as follows:

I AM A SCHOLAR!
I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.
I CANNOT fail and WILL NOT fail,
because failure is not an option.
I am in control of my future and my destiny.
I AM A SCHOLAR!
I AM THE FUTURE!

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I had no idea what a powerful impact this would have on my scholars. I mean, last year, we (my colleagues and I) always spoke of the attributes of our PRIDE principles, however, most of us assumed our scholars inherently knew them, especially by fifth grade. We were very wrong in our thinking. This year, our PRIDE principles are more visible around the school and in each classroom. The attributes are discussed and modeled frequently throughout the day and school year. I have noticed this year that the school wide PRIDE attributes, coupled with my statement, had begun to do something amazing to my scholars. Something I didn’t see or hear last year and something I hadn’t seen coming this year at all. They instantly began holding each other accountable for displaying PRIDE and never giving up. I was in absolute awe the first time I heard it. Let me frame this for you by offering just one example.

Every afternoon, we do a spiral math review. This review is a culmination of skills previously learned and some newly introduced skills as well. Because math is so intimidating to most of my scholars, their initial reaction to any questioning of their knowledge results in a shrug of their shoulders and the response “Um, I don’t know.” Oh no. Here we go again! I think to myself, “I just wish these children would believe in themselves the way that I believe in them.” I proceeded to respond encouragingly when from the back of the room, I heard, “Don’t give up! Failure is not an option. Persevere!” I stopped in shock as I slowly looked to see who was speaking. Someone heard me! Someone understood me! It felt like for the first time, my scholars got it because they all chimed in to encourage their peer! Since that moment, when anyone gets stuck, including me, and we feel like giving up, we support each other by saying out loud…”failure is not an option”! This has become our daily reminder to keep trying.

This was a powerful moment for me. There are so many times I become discouraged concerning whether I am making a difference in the lives of my scholars. I wonder whether my expectations are too ambitious for them and whether I am doing everything I can do to help them succeed. How many times a year do you do the same thing? We do this all the time because we are passionate about what we do and we believe in the capabilities of our scholars. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking about who’s life we can screw up today. That is not the case at all. But on this day, at this moment, it was that voice. It was that very moment when that young scholar’s voice in the back of the room reminded me why I am still in this classroom. I actually knew exactly why that Monday morning, when that twentieth scholar entered my room. I still have some lives to change. We ALL have some lives to change! Our scholars believe in us and they depend on us. No matter what the obstacle, we need to remember not to EVER give up on them because their failure…our failure… Nope! Failure is just not an option!

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The 27th Line

Ben Taylor

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more…

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SLO NO!! Now What?

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I have been staring at this data for TWO days! CRAP!! What happened?? I am looking at my SLO data (student learning objectives) which were written by me as long-term, measurable academic growth targets for each of my students. I wrote two goals this year that made up my SLOs. Both written in the area of English Language Arts, more specifically in guided reading and writing, and admittedly my weakest areas of practice by far. I’ll take math over ANYTHING any day!! However, I digress…

Let me preface all of this by first explaining what SLOs are and how they have come to fruition. Student Learning Objectives are one of two components used to make up the new Ohio teacher evaluation system (OTES). The other component is the teacher’s performance, as determined by a written professional growth plan, formal observations, and administrative walkthroughs to name a few. Each component is weighted at 50% (50% for teacher performance and 50% for student academic growth), together, making up a final summative rating for the teacher at the end of the school year (Ohio Department of Education, 2014).

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Now, while there are a few different ways to obtain student growth measures, there were only two options that really applied to me. They were shared attribution and SLOs. Different from the individually developed SLO, the Ohio Department of Education (2014) defines shared attribution as “an optional local student growth measure that can be attributed to a group of teachers. It encourages collaborative goals and may be used as data in the student growth component of teacher and principal evaluations”. Essentially, what this means, if I understand correctly, is that a school or district could decide, collaboratively, to base their SLO on, say, the success or value added measures of their fourth grade students’ state assessment results. If those fourth graders meet the state’s performance index and/or value added measures, the ENTIRE STAFF meets their student-learning objective for that year! Of course, in order for the shared attribution measure to be successful, you would need a completely invested staff that believes wholly in the mission and vision of the school and trusts one another without any doubt. To be frank, the staff would need to be fully acceptant of that old Three Musketeer mantra, “all for one and one for all”! Apparently, several surrounding districts do. I absolutely understand the reservation regarding putting your trust in someone else’s practice and progress. It is definitely a risk especially when your name is attached to your students’ scores. However, it is vitally important for teachers’ actions to support their spoken beliefs. Saying you understand the importance of vertical curriculum alignment and the effects each grade level has on the next, then closing your door to others, your mind to new knowledge, and losing all hope for the success of our students is a misalignment of practice. It just does not make sense! Shared attribution would not benefit a staff such as this.

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Maybe there were others as confused as I was regarding the two. I have to admit that at the time of its roll out, this portion of the evaluation process was muddy/murky for me. I had some other things clouding my mind and impeding my ability, or better yet, my willingness to even try to comprehend any of this at all. I put it all on the back burner to attend to at a later date and time. Oh, but how quickly things have become very clear.

As stated earlier, I wrote two SLOs for English Language Arts. There were several reasons for doing this. The first reason is that part of the district’s improvement plan is a focus on writing. The other goal, established by our staff, focused on guided reading levels. In creating my goals, my team and I put a lot of thought into our student growth targets. We created them collaboratively in order to support each other and ensure consistency in our instructional practices. Using the SMART goal characteristics (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) to create my goals, I developed the following learning objectives for my students:

1) For guided reading, each student will be expected to demonstrate at least one-year’s growth minus one level based on the Fountas and Pinnell text gradient chart.

This essentially meant my students would increase their reading by 2 levels (0r 0ne year’s growth) by mid-March. As I said earlier, my focus was not on SLO development, so I may have made an error in the targets I set. Even still, an increase in two levels did not seem overly ambitious to me…at the time.

2) For writing, each student will be expected to demonstrate a 4-point, or 40%, growth over their original baseline data gathered in September using the district-adopted STOP rubric. For example, if a student scored 2 out of ten in September, he/she is expected to have 6 out of ten points on the rubric by March.

Now, as student scores increased, the growth target decreased. So, students that scored a 7 as a baseline only needed to demonstrate a 3-point growth over their original baseline and so on. Again, this target did not appear to be unattainable for my students over a 6-8 month period.

I have high expectations for my students, for which I am very proud. I will never change nor deviate from the expectations upheld for my students. For that, I may learn a potentially unfortunate lesson. Even though student growth is what schools, districts, and states desire to see over a year’s time, as with value added measures; and although many of my students made growth in both areas, the only student growth that mattered were those that either met or exceeded the student growth target I set for them. Those that made minute amounts of progress were not taken into consideration at all. Because of the high expectations and the ambitious hopes and dreams I have for my students, there is now a great possibility that I will be rated this year as a DEVELOPING teacher! That’s “developing”, as in one-step above ineffective and one step below proficient. “Developing” defined as undergoing development, growing, or evolving. My thought process eludes me. Let me get this straight. I am a teacher with 10 years of experience, a doctorate degree in education, a budding business, and the determination of becoming a premier leader in school improvement and educational reform. Yet, according to my student growth data, I could possibly be rated as a developing teacher!!! I am suddenly bothered, extremely annoyed, and incredibly disappointed.

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Since I am undoubtedly aware of and acknowledge my areas of strength and weakness, I realize that there is always and will always be an opportunity to learn and grow. No way am I perfect, nor do I want to be. A developing expert in my field, perhaps? Yes, absolutely, but even experts continue to research and learn within their area of expertise. Identifying gaps in my practice is clearly not the issue. As I continue to sit and go over the lessons I’ve done, small groups I’ve facilitated, strategies I’ve taught, or even the things I didn’t quite do as effectively as I could have, I identify the real basis of my irritation.

My data clearly shows a gap in my instruction. It is true data. It communicates the areas of practice that need attention as data is intended to do. But, the longer I sit and stare, the more I begin to think about the ways in which this data will affect my future as an educator and any goals I have beyond the classroom. How could I possibly turn this data in as it is? This does not look good at all! I stop right there and shake off those thoughts as the leader within me emerges. It seems to me that the purpose of this process is to help teachers become more effective in their practice, right. However, the first thing I contemplated was falsifying my data to meet the needs of whom…MYSELF!! Immediately, I cast aside the needs of my students. I wonder how many teachers have had or will have the same thoughts if/when they see that their data is not up to par. I wonder how many will change their data to meet their own needs. It makes sense to me because none of us wants to receive a low summative rating. That is just human nature. We would all like to be rated as knowledgeable educators who understand their practice and are able to help every single one of their students grow every single year. No extraneous factors will ever get in the way. Our targets will always be set perfectly every year and our students will never fall short. That’s how we all want to be viewed. But, the reality is, the state of education is forever changing in practice and pedagogy. Therefore, those of us on the front line will fall short at some point because of the inevitable rate in which these changes occur. However, in this process, as it is right now, teachers will always benefit because we will all make certain that our rating will reflect proficient and accomplished performance. In the end, the students will be the ones that suffer because their instruction will not be at the top of our priority list. Meeting our SLO targets will. Now, that’s what I call fair! Um, not so much…

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Needless to say, I could not and did not change my data. The moment I thought about doing that, the evaluation process lost is intended purpose. For me, the process no longer focused on instructing students, but rather on me making certain that I received the rating I needed to maintain my job. Now, the process was not promoting growth in effective instructional practices, but instead, effectiveness in falsifying documents and perfecting the practice of lying. The proverbial dog and pony show, more commonly known as the scheduled evaluation observation (we ALL put our best foot forward during those), along with the lowered expectation bar, which will soon convincingly be identified as the rigor I will claim to provide in my classroom, has the great potential of guiding my future in this field. How does that even make sense? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of this whole process? Thankfully, I would never shortchange my students by lowering my expectations for them. It just does not align with my personal or professional morals. They need to be challenged, want to be challenged, and should be challenged. However, in the meantime, there is clearly a flaw. In my opinion, whether student learning objectives or shared attributions, the process is ambiguous, inequitable, unreliable, and holds no validity in regards to teacher accountability. In fact, it only evokes this simple question; NOW what??

What Do You Expect?!

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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.

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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?