By Chris Geary, Guest Blogger
As an AP World History teacher at a charter school in the Far Northeast of Denver that holds uniquely high expectations for students, I have witnessed the fundamental necessity of expecting students to perform to the best of their ability on a daily basis. Students absolutely can, and will repeatedly, rise to the occasion when they are pushed yet supported. My school has a unique approach to teaching AP World History, as every sophomore takes the AP class regardless of their reading level, or previous performance in school. Although it can be an extraordinary challenge providing students of various levels the necessary scaffolds to access a primary source such as The Communist Manifesto, having the fundamental belief that every student can access high level content if they are provided with the necessary resources and support has allowed for students to grapple with complex ideologies while often still years behind grade level. I truly believe holding students to the highest expectations possible fosters academic, personal, and social growth in ways that are wholly beneficial to the individual student.
High expectations extend beyond the academic component of a classroom. At our school, students are held to equally high behavior expectations, with the overarching belief that every single student has the ability to behave appropriately, if you consistently hold them to the same standard you would hold yourself to. Defining behavioral expectations is inherently challenging and subjective, as it often requires school administration to define professional versus unprofessional behavior, which may be rooted in an individual administrator’s own cultural background. Additionally, just as with academics, some students need scaffolding to reach the high behavioral expectations, and our school tries to be uniquely in touch with accommodating for students’ behavioral needs. However, the overall belief remains the same: all kids can achieve great things regardless of what they may have done in the past.
Thus far in my teaching experience I have worked at two extremely unique school environments: a chronically failing turnaround school, and a uniquely high-performing charter school. In my broader educational experience, I have worked in turnaround schools throughout Chicago’s South and West sides, as well as low-rated public schools in Durham, North Carolina. In my admittedly narrow educational experience it seems that one of two things tends to happen; either schools have exceptionally high expectations for students yet aren’t designed to meet students’ personal and emotional needs, or they attempt to be entirely student-centered while failing to hold students to high academic and behavioral expectations. I wholeheartedly believe that the ultimate success of a school is dependent on their ability to maintain high expectations for students, while still operating as student-centered organizations that respond to the unique socio-emotional needs of all individuals within the building.
My previous school did not hold students to high expectations at all. We were consistently told as a staff not to assign homework, because our students did not have the focus nor the home environments to complete homework assignments. I was told by administration that none of my students would ever be on grade-level, because tests that determine a student’s grade-level ability are unfair and too hard. I was told to stop spending time with students that would drop out anyways, because they were lost causes. I witnessed teachers routinely write students off as hopeless, simply because they did not want to spend the necessary effort providing those students with the necessary academic and/or behavioral scaffolding needed for that student to succeed. It broke my heart on a daily basis.
With that said, my previous school was successfully student-centered. Students had input on their schedules by choosing from a wide-range of electives and school activities from everything from graphic design to guitar classes. Additionally, students and teachers worked collaboratively to determine a social contract for each class period, so that students had fair and valuable input into classroom rules and disciplinary actions when necessary, and students were generally at the very center of all of our operational decisions.
By no means was my previous school a model for success, but in some ways in was much more student-centered than my current high-performing charter school is. Although we push our students to the highest possible academic and behavioral expectations and have witnessed truly impressive growth and proficiency on a wide variety of tests, students suffer from a lack of choices and options. Every single second of every single day is accounted for, with a consistent effort to drive student achievement in a meaningful way that will offset the academic achievement gap. However, this rationale is often lost on students. Our school is undoubtedly impressive for visitors to witness. The first thing people realize is that every single kid is 100% on task in class for every single minute of the day. That is the most basic of all of our expectations for kids. Visitors are often struck by the fact that students are never in the hallways unattended, and are never allowed to put their head down, or drift off even for one second. This culture can allow for enormously positive academic results and initially seems very impressive. However to our students, our school feels like an oppressive factory that is pumping them with the necessary academic skills to graduate from college, but doesn’t allow the personal freedom and decision making skills necessary to ultimately operate life as an independent and successful adult. Students frequently feel trapped, and like their only option is to either comply to someone else’s rules, or face immediate consequences. Recently, our sophomores have hit an academic slump that is largely related to this school-culture. When students feel controlled, run-down, and pushed yet not equally supported, they can suffer academically.
It is not easy to maintain a student-centered focus while also holding students to high expectations, yet it is necessary to build sustainable schools that can offset educational inequity. Although my high-performing charter school currently operates in an effort to maximize every single second of every single class in a way that drives student achievement, we often fail to realize that the inherent lack of student investment in our school can prevent kids from making the academic and personal gains necessary to graduate from college or succeed in whatever post-high school career they choose. Schools should be wholly student-centered, but individual teachers need to push themselves to think from the students perspective, and provide choice to students whenever possible. This can be challenging and often stressful to attempt to do, especially as an AP teacher. I know that if my students don’t have a solid grasp on the three different rubrics used on the AP exam, they will have a hard time passing the exam and earning college credit. However, that doesn’t mean all of my assignments need to involve students writing AP-styled essays, and that every single second of every single lesson needs to be about the AP exam. Beyond academic growth and data, we are in this line of work to develop a new generation of thinkers and leaders that can solve some of the problems we are currently creating. Students need to have legitimate investment in school to really access this higher-level objective of teaching. Maybe it’s as simple as offering students to do one of two things for homework, or as an exit ticket. Maybe it’s as simple as offering students to work by themselves or with a group of classmates. Maybe it’s as simple as allowing students to design a way to learn the necessary content in a way that is best suited for their unique learning style. Teachers at schools that are not student-centered seem to blame the administration, or the overarching school tenants, for why they are not student-centered. While a school’s mission statement or overarching design undoubtedly affects whether or not it is student-centered, it is also necessary for individual teachers to consistently build investment by thinking from the student perspective, and allowing students to choose what to do when possible.