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.
“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.