Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Teacher Expectations and Student Outcomes

While browsing the web in preparation for writing this newsletter, I came across the following quote:

“Research ‘clearly establishes that teacher expectations do play a significant role in determining how well and how much students learn’ (Jerry Bamburg 1994).”

It reminded me of a student I had who truly demonstrated the truth of this statement.

Alex was your classic problem child: never came to class on time, never had his homework, never read the book, never paid any attention, always had a talent for disrupting my lessons.

Alex was on his third try at eleventh grade English by the time he came to me. He couldn’t seem to pass the class and an attendance record dotted with trips to the juvenile detention center hadn’t helped. So when the year neared its end and he was clearly going to fail--yet again--he decided to take radical action. He stayed after school.

I was impressed with his last-minute interest in passing my class, but by this point I had pretty much given up on him. It would take a feat of human genius to make up the months of work he’d missed.

What I hadn’t realized about Alex in all the time he’d spent disrupting my class was that he was capable of feats of genius.

He stayed after school every day. He took home every book to read. He wrote. He reported. He wrote some more. He took tests, and passed. He talked. And as I began to learn more about this boy who became a man when he was still a child, I came to understand the person he’d been in my class all along.

He didn’t know his father. He was the caretaker for a physically disabled younger brother. His mother had been in jail for the past several years, and at present he was raising himself. All of that might have been the reason for his behavior, but that’s not where he placed the blame.

He told me that his childhood dream had always been to become a doctor. He poured over anything he could find to read about science and the human body. He imagined himself curing the sick and caring for those in need.

And then he had the teacher, one teacher, who killed that dream. “She told me I would never amount to anything and that it was stupid to think I could become a doctor. From that day on I just believed her.”

In that instant school became a requirement but not an opportunity for Alex. And all he wanted to do now was live until he was 27. That was his big life’s goal.

To think one teacher’s comments could do all that. It angered me and humbled me at the same time, for I too had given up on this boy.

Ultimately, he ended up passing my class. Then he started passing all his classes. He graduated with a “most improved student” award and went on to start a successful career in the military.

His story has a happy ending. But whenever I think of Alex, I think about all the young people like him out there whose stories don’t end that way, and of the teachers who knowingly, or unknowingly, play a role in what their students become.

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