Thursday, April 9, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Cha. 3

Expect to get your students there

The bottom line of this chapter is to have high expectations for your students. Jackson moves very quickly to make a couple of things clear, though: giving students a harder test is not raising expectations. Praising students for mediocre performance is not raising expectations. In fact, she maintains, faking higher expectations until making higher expectations is one of the more damaging practices out there. She differentiates between "standards" and "expectations." Standards are what students need to learn. Expectations are a teacher's belief about how far s/he can take her / his students towards the standards.

[Michigan is working on publishing "content expectations," which is the list of things a student has to know. These lists used to be known as "standards." In neither list is there a measure of how far on this list the state believes a student can get. With this chapter, the terminologies become completely muddled, and are now more or less meaningless (for a given value of "meaningless." Whatever that means.)]

In fact, over half of this chapter is spent defining "expectations." Jackson suggests that expectations are what we think we can help students to learn, combined with how much we value the learning objectives. And the big takeaway line is, "Expectations say more about your own sense of efficacy than they do about your students' abilities" (84). It's not about taking responsibility for learning away from students and putting it on teachers, but it IS about teachers knowing their power (Nancy Pelosi is playing on the Daily Show, plugging her book, and it was too tidy a phrase not to use) to improve their students' learning. She (Jackson, not Pelosi) goes on to explore what it means to have lowered expectations, and where it comes from, and she decides that lowered expectations are a defense mechanism: they "reduce the gap between our own understanding about what good teaching should be and our perceptions about our ability to teach effectively given our current teaching situation" (85). That makes sense--it explains why it's such a common phenomenon, and why it's so hard to get over. Fortunately, she does offer some concrete steps to help.

As the basis for these steps, she quotes Jim Collins's book Good to Great (one of my principal's current favorites) quoting Admiral Jim Stockdale: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be (Collins, 2001, p. 85)" (Jackson, 2009, p. 89). She breaks this into two parts-- "Adopt an unwavering faith in yourself and the importance of your work" (91) and "Confront the brutal facts of your reality" (95).

Part of the "unwavering faith" involves teaching philosophy; why did you become a teacher? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Part of it is more pragmatic: walk the walk in your classroom. We can all sit on our blogs and bang out, "I believe all students can learn, that teamwork is more effective than individual work, that homework needs to be utilized carefully, that extrinsic awards are counterproductive," or whatever was in the most recent professional development article we've read. But it's totally different to say those things than to actually utilize group work, to give meaningful homework assignments, to never give out candy for performance.

Confronting the "brutal facts" involves more self-knowledge: what are you good at? What teaching strategies are you currently using? Then some knowledge of situation: What is the teaching task at hand? What's challenging about teaching this time in this place? (Jackson tells a story about trying to teach Shakespeare to a group of, erm, students she didn't naturally connect with.) Then some judgement: are your current strategies up to the task? If not, what can you do about it?

Jackson ends the chapter with the admonition that you have to attend to both of these parts. Faith in yourself is a necessary condition for improving your teaching, but not a sufficient condition. Knowing your situation without tending to your philosophy is a recipe for burnout. And, ultimately, once again, know that your expectations for your students are really your expectations for yourself.

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