It’s easy to lament the multiple barriers to achievement that are present for many students; low socioeconomic backgrounds, single-parent households, poverty and other issues create a conundrum of obstacles that serve to obstruct the learning process. However, framing the issues of underachievement as an unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of poverty presents a simplistic and somewhat fatalistic response to the challenges present in society today. In my mind, it comes down to every teacher, every day, engaging in deliberate decision-making that either makes a difference (or not) in a child’s life. Indeed, McAdoo reminds us that, “While teachers have little control over school or district policy, they can make a difference in their classroom climate”. It seems clear that good teaching, while not formulaic, does present a predictable and discernible pattern that is in attendance in classroom with a climate of success.
Good teachers make some assumptions about all their students; they assume that all students want to learn, are (or are able to be) motivated, and are capable of achieving at high levels. These classroom norms are crafted regardless of students’ socioeconomic, or ethnic background; according to a study by Ferguson (2004) “Across racial groups, we found that students had roughly the same desire to do well” (p. 9). I believe that learners rise to the highest level of expectation; by elevating the standard of both academic and affective development, students are challenged to strive to their greatest potential. Ferguson (2004) tells us that “…what teachers believe about their students has a lot to do with the climate that teachers themselves establish in the classroom: whether they convince students they love to help them and place a heavy emphasis on high quality results – i.e., learning to understand and produce correct answers” (p. 12). Yet, it is important to remain cognizant that reaching one’s highest potential is not a uniform achievement; individuals are uniquely human and their successes will be individualistic in nature. Rather, it is the level of effort demanded and expected of each student that must be consistently demonstrated; where learners take their efforts will differ accordingly.
Yet, simply setting up a normative classroom environment that is demanding is not enough to foster the creative and sustained level of commitment necessary to achieve. Research by Rogers (1983) into the dynamics of successful classroom environmental or simply put, “good teaching” are revealing “…when students’ feelings are responded to, when they are regarded as worthwhile human beings capable of self-direction, and when their teacher relates to them in a person-to-person manner, good things happen” (p. 2). This taking care of business in the affective domain of learning is important and should not be an afterthought, but rather a deliberate aspect of instruction, and it must be genuine. Ferguson (2004) warns us that, “Encouragement and caring are about more than just being friendly. They are about facilitating students’ success. They are about helping students do what they could not do without their teacher’s support and assistance” (p. 10). Caring without guidance and support can leave students mired in their struggle; it is up to the adults in the building to provide mentorship, positive role models and advocacy for each student at their individual level. This is no easy task; our students come from a variety of backgrounds both economic and ethnic. Statistically, these differences impact their access to healthy adult role models, quality and quantity of food, help with their homework and even the kind and type of preschool education they received; these students, typically non-white, are what Rogers (2004) refers to as “educationally handicapped” by their circumstance of birth. It doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of learning, it just means that they may come from a background that hasn’t prepared them for school in the way that many white children have and need an approach that is centered in teacher encouragement to maintain their motivation (Ferguson, 2004). Teachers that create a normative culture that is empathetic, positive and congruent impact their students in the following ways:
- Missed fewer days of school during the year;
- Maintained or increased their scores on self-concept measures (while students of teachers offering low levels of empathy, congruence, and positive regard had decreases on self-concept measures);
- Maintained or increased their scores in I.Q. tests as opposed to decreases for students of low level teachers;
- Made greater gains on academic achievement measures (Roger, 2004, p. 1).
When we look at the equation of high expectations (teacher demand) and encouragement (teacher help) it’s clear that one cannot exist without the other. McAdoo, in reviewing the work of Ferguson provides a helpful way to frame the structuring of normative thinking in good teaching classrooms:
- This is a place of mutual support (establishing caring and trust);
- We are going to have order in here (balancing of student autonomy and teacher control);
- We’re going to have very high goals (communicating high expectations);
- Sometimes this is going to be hard (setting conditions for student persistence);
- By the end of the year, we will have come a long way (demonstrating faith in students’ abilities).
While is may seem difficult to beat the drum of high expectations when a proportion of our student population is faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, if achievement is approached from a dynamic of building a caring, trusting, empathetic and supportive environment, more students will rise to the occasion than not. I have to take time to reflect on my own practice to question whether I have tempered my high expectations, because I am know as that teacher, with the appropriate mix of empathy, caring and support. I know that I’m not perfect, and that there have been days when I have fallen short of my own expectations form my students in general, and probably consistently with a student or two in particular. This is a continued area of growth for me, so it is helpful to be reminded once again, that I cannot expect all my students to respond in the same way; I must be the adult in the room and continue to try different approaches until I’ve exhausted all angles. Perhaps the greatest challenge for teachers is realizing that all our students, regardless of whether they communicate it or not, want to be successful. Many of them just don’t know how to go about it, don’t know how to ask, or just aren’t heard. It is our job to listen with open hearts.
Ferguson, Donald F. (July 3, 2004). Professional Community and Closing the Student Achievement Gap. Advocating for What’s Right: A One-Day NEA Symposium on Critical Issues for Educators. Lecture conducted from Washington, DC.
McAdoo, Maisie. (ND). Inside the Mystery of Good Teaching. Retrieved from https://bbweb-prod.spu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_63636_1%26url%3D
Rogers, Carl. 1983. Researching Person-Centered Issues in Education. In Freedom to Learn. Retrieved from https://bbweb-prod.spu.edu/courses/1/EDU6526_28255201232/content/_831007_1/Carl%20Rogers.pd