Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teaching Effectively: High Expectations Part 1

(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
For my entire life, I’ve benefited from high expectations. For whatever reason, my parents, teachers, professors, friends, and people I’ve worked with have expected me to be above average (at the very least). When I was younger, I let these expectations get to my head. I was overconfident, I had a healthy ego, and I had a very self-centric view on the world. I’d like to think that I’ve changed since then, but experience has taught me that I may not be the best judge.
I bring this up because few kids have access to the same high expectations that I did. I’ve come to realize that these expectations may be one of the few ‘real’ differences between me and some of my high school classmates who might not have performed as well academically.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I wasn’t the fastest in the class (either cognitively or physically). I had a decent memory, but tended to over-rely on it. Especially in elementary-school, my grades were about average for my class or maybe a hair or two above. The only thing that might have been different about me was my imagination. I used to spend hours and days at a time killing orcs, fighting stormtroopers, and protecting our farm from all sorts of invaders. Of course, this meant I didn’t spend much time socializing with my peers or working on homework, but it did mean I was happy.
In short, I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t particularly gifted or motivated. Any academic talent that I developed in high-school wasn’t innate. It was learned because others (first my parents, then my teachers) expected it of me.
Most of the other kids in my class didn’t have those same parental expectations. For them, school wasn’t something you were supposed to excel in. Just something you were supposed to get through. For some, school wasn’t even something you were supposed to do well in. We had a couple of kids in my class who went through our school’s special education program. At first (when we were in third and fourth grade), they were just the kids who got ice cream occasionally when they would leave the room. Then, as we got older, we began to notice that they received different assignments than the rest of us. They were easier. Not as complicated or as time consuming. Then, when we got to high school, we noticed that they didn’t know as much as we did. They didn’t seem to pick things up as quickly either. Of course, some of us thought we were clever and made the connection that we were smarter than them. They were the slower kids who needed extra help. None of us ever said anything out loud - that would have been mean - but most of us thought it on some level.

Some of these kids had been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Others may have performed especially poorly on standardized tests. A couple may have just had trouble making connections in an academic setting. Whatever the reason, these kids were separated from the rest of us and given different assignments with different expectations. And, being the humans that they were, they rose to meet those expectations. They all graduated, and I have no doubt that our school’s special ed teachers were proud of all of their performances.

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