Expect more to get more

Over the years, I have worked with students of different cultural, socioeconomic, and academic backgrounds. One year I taught at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging schools with one of the lowest teacher-retention rates. Violence, poverty, and failing scores gave the school a negative reputation in the community. I quickly discovered that most of my colleagues were burnt out and expected behavior problems and poor performance. I was assigned a class of 32 below-level students without any special education, language, or behavior support.

Given the situation, how should a teacher envision the year ahead? Should a teacher expect every lesson to be interrupted with behavior problems? Should a teacher expect that no child will pass the state test? I refused to accept that the situation was out of my control.

I focused on attaining quality academic and behavioral performance from each student. I consistently set high, yet achievable, expectations and didn’t back down. These expectations were continually communicated with students and families. We celebrated growth, successes, and even attendance on a daily basis. The kids felt accountable knowing there would always be follow-through.

After the first trimester other staff members began to notice a dramatic, positive change in this class. By March my students were exhibiting record gains on the Benchmark Assessment.

Although I may not be a better or more experienced teacher, I believe I approached the year much differently than my colleagues. Preconceived notions did not dictate my school year. Past performance is certainly beneficial information to have, but this information should not be used to place students in a box. Rather, one should use this information to motivate students appropriately and raise the bar whenever possible. Instruction must be differentiated to meet cultural, academic, language, and learning style needs. However, the definition of quality must remain the same and shouldn’t waiver between student populations.

How do you set expectations for your students? Would love to hear your ideas!

Day 1: Don’t just share a lesson, share a vision

Many teacher preparation programs tell you not to crack a smile until December. They say the first days of school are for establishing respect, rules and routines. While this advice is grounded on sound ideas, it overlooks an essential classroom practice: building community. It is community that makes a student look forward to going to class, and helps a student stay strong when the rest of his or her world falls apart. Community that encourages a student to work at his or her full potential. A strong community creates a learning environment where all students can succeed.

This past year I scraped all of my former first day plans in favor of activities that built our classroom community. We went outside and I shared my “vision statement” for the year. I asked students to help me complete an exercise that demonstrated that vision. Students looked at me a little confused as to why I was asking them to splatter paint on a canvas instead of reading a list of rules. However, this set a completely different tone for our year. Our vision, fully know(n) and fully love(d), created a community where we could freely express our ideas. We had to trust that when our classmates fully knew and understood our thoughts and feelings they would still love us. This vision encouraged us to share openly with one another, making our community that much stronger.

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After the first day I hung the paintings and our vision statement on a bulletin board in a prominent part of the classroom. Each day my students and I were greeted with this reminder. During class discussions we’d go back to this vision and let it mold our conversation and tone of voice. On presentation days we’d start with a reminder of our vision and let it influence our feedback. When conflict arose we discussed where the breakdown in this vision occurred and how we could prevent it from happening in the future.

We eventually discussed our rules and routines, but this first day activity set the tone for what was most important in my classroom — it was the first impression, and I only have one chance at delivering a great one for the classroom! It both deepened our curricular learning and encouraged us to be better people. Isn’t that what every teacher wants?