Neal McDonald, Dearborn Middle School

Neal McDonald is a T3 Teacher Leader and SEI team lead. Currently, he teaches ESL, SEI Civics, and Computer Basics at Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, MA. His thoughts and resources on blended learning environments are on Twitter @mr_mcdclass or found here on his Wikispace.

Neal McDonald's students

“Please teach us! She’s not strict like you were! We don’t learn anything from [her]! ” moaned a former student when I visited the Title I school where I had previously taught. To my surprise, standing in front of me requesting that I teach their Language Arts class was a cohort of high-risk students that initially spent more energy trying to get out of work than they did doing their work.

Before mustering a response, I wondered what could have possibly transpired during the prior year that would elicit such a response.

What did I do that she didn’t? I think that by ‘not strict,’ they meant ‘without high expectations’ because I expected their best.

“Please teach us!”

If statistics held true, the odds of these students becoming high academic achievers were slim. Success was improbable, but not impossible. I truly believed that all students could learn and achieve. I believed that they would make it, and I wanted my students to internalize my positive beliefs about them. What teachers believe about students, students believe about themselves.

The beginning of that preceding year found me repeatedly challenging students with specific responses – “Is this your best work?” “Do it again,” “You’ll live” and “Yes, you can.” I was frustrated and fatigued after reminding students multiple times each class period that education involves more than merely completing an assignment.

“She’s not strict like you were!”

No student could escape a class period without actively engaging the content. Students had choices about how they would demonstrate their knowledge, and they were expected to productively engage their minds before their mouths. “I don’t know” was an unacceptable answer, unless it was followed by “right now, but may I have more time?” Each question was leveled so that all students were able to successfully answer at least one question every day.

 Reasonable attempts were celebrated and, simultaneously, met with a challenge to further expand their reasoning. Over time, students knew they were expected to make academic gains and amplify their logic. As rigor increased, student knowledge and achievement increased.

 I was exhausted from the seemingly never-ending process of implying, intimating, admonishing and emphasizing what they were capable of achieving. Period. I refused to adjust my expectations because of past failures, teacher opinion, socio-economic status, native language, or their own negative internal monologue. They were repeatedly reminded that I didn’t expect perfection, but I insisted upon growth. And by the end of the year, they had all improved.

 As I listened to them, I remembered that together we built a new foundation of shared success. Dialogue about their recent achievements replaced the previous soundtrack of failure. The expectation was that they would struggle. The expectation was that they would work harder than they ever had before. The expectation was that they were to take responsibility for their own learning.

 “We don’t learn anything from her.”

 As they awaited a response, it was clear they needed a reminder. “So,” I asked, “what do learners do when they want to learn what they think they are not being taught?”

 “We learn it on our own.”

 I would expect nothing less.

4 Responses to “Neal McDonald, Dearborn Middle School”

  1. Karen Newton 01. Mar, 2013 at 1:49 am #

    Right on article Neal. I wish I could have had teachers or a teacher who held me accountable and taken the time to investigate why I never asked a question nor answered one either. When you have television classes, taught by someone on a television screen and 200 kids in the class there is no way a student is going to ask a question. So glad that idea faded along with all the other ideas that have floated out there.

  2. Dave 01. Mar, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    “I was exhausted from the seemingly never-ending process…” Amen!

    I feel this way nearly every day as I give all of myself to all of my students in hope that they believe in themselves and grow accordingly. I teach one class of algebra intervention, two classes of algebra 1, and two of AP Calculus AB. While the content specifics differ for each subject, the necessity to exhort students to do their best is extremely similar.

    For my AP Calculus students, who mostly are shocked by the challenge the course provides them after easily sliding through prior math classes, they learn that they need to dig down deep inside themselves to overcome the challenge; those that do succeed, and all learn an important lesson. For my algebra students, they see that someone cares for them in a warm fuzzy way and in a high expectations manner. They have multiple chances to relearn prerequisites as we proceed through the curriculum so they gain confidence in their fundamental skills and develop some proficiency with current concepts. Most students grow, some significantly more than others. And while I desire that they all master all concepts, I accept that forward progress is a huge win for my students, which I hope they continue to build upon as they continue with their education.

  3. Miringu Kamwati 15. Mar, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    Thanks for this article. I see a need for me as a college student to.dig deper n master more will in giving off my best work as the gol,rather than completing the assignments.

  4. Pat Ward 17. Mar, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    So proud of you. I love that you still think of me as Mrs. Ward. It takes me back to the precious time we shared in and out of classroom. God bless the special work and ministry you are doing in and out of your classroom as well.

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