When the topic of educational improvement arises, especially in schools that serve low socio-economic communities, the term “expectations” gets thrown around a lot…and for good reason. As educators, we should have high expectations for all of our students. To do otherwise jeopardizes their academic future. To be honest, the difficulty usually isn’t the establishment of expectations, it is providing the level of support necessary for students to achieve, perform, or behave at the desired level. As educators, we spend too much time talking about increasing “rigor” (a term that I just can’t seem to care for) without a correlating discussion of support.
Expectations don’t necessarily translate to success, or even an acceptable level of effort. As an analogy, consider telling a couch potato (not entirely unlike myself) that you expect them to run a marathon. Spend some time discussing the merits of running and the pride that comes from accomplishing such a challenging task. Set high expectations. Assuming said person has at least a moderate level of motivation for the task, they might research potential running plans, pick out a marathon date and even start jogging a little. However, as the runs become longer, the weather refuses to cooperate, and the lactic acid builds up, the would-be marathoner’s enthusiasm begins to wane. Most of us would agree that the success rate of an individual in these circumstances is likely to be very low. They need help. Someone who can coach them. Someone who will run with them. A network of support – people who will see them through the difficult times. Our students need the same. High expectations are good, but they are not enough.
It should be an educational “law” that for every minute we spend developing an expectation, we spend an equal amount of time deriving a correlating support measure (still working on a name for this law). Empathy becomes a part of this process. In order to ensure our students have the tools and resources necessary to meet challenges and overcome obstacles, we have to develop an understanding for their individual circumstances. We must balance our expectations with an appropriate level of empathy.
If you have not had an opportunity to see the movie, The Blind Side, it is definitely worth the viewing time. It is the moving story of one young man’s struggles, the people who saw his potential–and need. Instead of writing him off based upon perceptions, misunderstanding and even racism, they cared enough to provide the expectations and support system that he needed to overcome very real challenges. You see, empathy is motivation for providing support. Support enables high expectations. High expectations lead to success.