I have a challenge for you. Recall the best teacher you ever had. Now think about what characteristics that teacher had and compare it to the other teachers you can remember whom you would never have selected as "best." Chances are you can't even remember those who did not make your cut.
I'll bet that if you remember the characteristics of your best teacher(s) you will find many of those characteristics in this article by Joanne Lipman
that was recently published in the Wall Street Journal.
If it is too nebulous for you to recall who your best teacher was and what their characteristics were, if you were fortunate enough to participate in athletics, run the same question against your coaches. The question of "best" is more easily determined. Which coaches produced champions? Were champion-producing coaches more or less demanding than those who had losing records? You get the point.
Now, what I am about to say will get me in trouble with a number of people. But it needs to be said.
My third year of teaching (in 1968) was the first year the schools in Wake County eliminated the dual school system and fully integrated by eliminating "colored schools" and "white schools." I was selected by my principal to serve on a planning committee the year before desegregation. The committee was made up of teachers from the "white school" and from the "colored school." We were the group expected to implement a plan to "make desegregation work." I learned much from that committee.
One of the things that was so readily obvious was that the administrators and most of the teachers at the black school were much stronger disciplinarians than were those of us at the white school. We spent hours debating the Student Code of Conduct. Most of those debates were centered on how strict the rules should be. I did not come to realize until later that in almost all instances the black teachers argued for stricter rules than the white teachers did. Instinctively I felt the black teachers were right. But they lost out.
The next year as all the black kids and white kids in the attendance area we served for each grade were all assigned to the same school I saw it play out. We had a weak principal who was more concerned about not being accused of being biased than he was about anything else. He brought with him a condescending attitude that the minority students had been attending an inferior school so it was not "appropriate" to expect as much from them as had previously been expected of the white students.
But we all knew, instinctively, that we could not apply different standards to students on the basis of race. So you know what happened. We lowered the standards. And I am convinced now that the quality of education for ALL students in our schools suffered, and indeed the vestiges of this "dumbing down" may still be afflicting our schools.
But interestingly, the same thing did not happen in athletics. Because winning was the measure of success, the coaches, be they black or white, continued to demand what they thought it took to win. The overall quality of athletics went up, not down.
I say all that to simply agree with Ms. Lipman.
Championship performance, no matter whether in sports or in academics comes more from expectations than it does from "meeting the needs of every child...," building self-esteem, everyone getting a trophy, measuring success by whether you tried or not, or whether you achieved "minimum competency." (In North Carolina, that has for years been defined as 'Level III'. Remember that the next time you ride by a school and see a sign out front that says something like "School of Excellence" or "School of Distinction." Those labels come from achieving the minimum, not the maximum.)
I have always felt that the business of education is far too complex to reduce it to clichés or singular pronouncements but to make my point here I shall commit that sin. The biggest problem with education today is that we don't expect enough. We don't expect enough from the system, from our schools, from our administrators, our teachers, from our parents and mostly from our students. It matters not whether those expectations are academic achievement, discipline, character, manners, even dress and grooming or any other standard - except perhaps in athletics. The worst practice we have inflicted on our youth is that they have been judged against the minimum rather than against whether they were as good as they could be...and that no matter how good that was, it was not good enough. We simply have not instilled in them that they could be better. No matter what.
One of the members of that committee was Mr. Sanders. The assistant principal at the all-black school. The next year he and I served together as assistant principals at the desegregated school. Both of us spent most of our time as disciplinarians. I will never forget the day he and I met with a black student who had "talked back" to one of his teachers. What I observed was Mr. Sanders, what would today be considered, verbally abuse that student. I'll spare you the details, but let me just say that when Mr. Sanders got finished that young man knew what was expected of him and it was much, much more than he had exhibited. Mr. Sanders demanded excellence from him. And he got it. That young man today is a judge. He holds a doctorate from Harvard. But more importantly, he has been a mentor to hundreds of young black men over the years. I often wonder what would have become of him had that "abuse" not been inflicted on him that day by Mr. Sanders.
That sounds like a great story, does it not? Here's the rest of it.
Mr. Sanders was deemed a failure as an administrator in desegregated schools (by his superiors). He retired a few years after desegregation. His "sin?" He did not expect the same thing from white students that he did from black students and the white students ran over him. The white principal? He lasted only two years.
I am probably missing a good stopping point here, but I would extend my remarks by suggesting what I consider to be the most valid substantiation of this idea of expectations of excellence.
When I was in graduate school I did a research project that focused on correlating "aptitude and attitude." Oversimplified, what we learned was that Asian cultures had the highest expectations; and guess what. Asian students did better, as a rule, than did students from other cultures. But I remember one interview of a Chinese mother who told me that they did not seek to instill high expectations in their children. Rather their culture was based on the concept that the demand for excellence was to come from within each student, not from external demands. That's a discussion for another day, but suffice it to say that if you apply this concept to American education today you come to the conclusion that we don't do a very good job of teaching students to expect excellence from themselves, regardless of what others do or do not expect or even what the system expects.
And therein lies the hill American education must climb. And if/when we get to the top of that hill we will have many fewer people dependent on someone else to do for them what they could do better for themselves.
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.