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Setting High Expectations and Believing In Students


Found in: Back to School, Transitions

[To help begin the school year or new semester] with high expectations and avoid giving your students the impression that you have prejudged them, I have found it very helpful to read memoirs. This might seem unconnected to teaching, but when I have had difficult, hard-to-reach students, it has helped me to remember, for example, that Maya Angelou was raped and refused to speak even though she held inside poetry and power, Barbara Robinette Moss suffered malnutrition and poverty and grew to defy society's expectations, Ingo Hasselbach, heavily invested in the violence and hatred of neo-nazi extremism, eventually found the strength and knowledge to defy what had once been his identity, and Mark Mathabane lived with the denigration and institutionalized racism of apartheid but was freed by his determination to learn and his athletic talent.

I tried to imagine what teaching these individuals seventh grade language arts would have been like, not knowing how to reach silent Maya; dirty, unfed Barbara; angry, entitled Ingo; oppressed Mark. I doubt I would have recognized their potential, their uniqueness. I think I might have decided that since I couldn't fix all those things outside of my control (abuse, poverty, neglect, racism), I might have become overwhelmed and given up. Knowing that about myself and recognizing that these are real people who overcame and were influenced positively by people they encountered throughout life, I found it much easier to look beyond the difficult behavior of my students and see them as unique people, full of possibility, and to not take their sullen disinterest in my subject personally.

I was more able to just deal with each behavior clearly, specifically, and unemotionally and separate it from my opinion of and belief in the child. I was more able to teach with enthusiasm about my subject rather than hiding my excitement because some students appeared disinterested. I was more able to smile at my students, to avoid favoritism, to find the little opportunities to encourage and interest the challenging students. To remember that I was in a position to add positivity, information, encouragement, caring to their lives. Whether they were ready to accept these things or not. Whether or not I could tell that I was making a difference.

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