Originally this post was going to be about something else but I have been inspired to change tack after reading a quality post by Jon Andrews @Obi_Jon_ on teacher agency. I wanted to talk about the value of having high expectations for students by reflecting on my schooling and my journey to becoming a teacher. Let’s bounce!
People often talk about everybody having that one teacher at school that really took the time to get to know them, and/or inspired them in their schooling journey. I didn’t. In fact I have no recollection at all of any teachers names or even faces from primary school. Granted that was along time ago but you would think there would be something. I live 10 minutes drive from my former primary school and even visiting triggers nothing. That might say more about me than the teachers from that era, I’m not sure. (I do remember that I was a ‘Milk Monitor’, which meant I got to drink my daily enforced ration of 300mls of milk almost cold. If you weren’t a monitor you had to wait until the designated time when you tried to drink it warm without vomiting).
I do have some recollections of high school, and there are around four or five teachers whose names I know and I can picture them, although none had any positive impact that I can recall. I do remember a very gifted artist impersonating a teacher and pretending that no one was aware he sipped whiskey all day. I thought his drawings were amazing, but he never spoke to me directly.
What I do clearly remember was that the teachers had very low expectations for me. There was always this pervasive, ubiquitous understanding that I wasn’t worth worrying about too much. I was frequently in trouble and did appallingly on all my assessments. Oddly, the school had a very strict policy on behavior which was ruthlessly enforced with corporal punishment, but seemingly very relaxed standards toward academic achievement. I was never spoken to about improving my results, my parents were never contacted and it was generally accepted that I just wasn’t up to scratch. There were frequent jokes from teachers and administration about my lack of intelligence. (Many times I heard my deputy principal say, “If you had another brain it would be lonely”). This didn’t offend me in any way as I recall, it just sounded truthful to me. I do clearly recall getting zero out of fifty for a technical drawing exam, whereas the boy next to me got one mark for an excellent drawing of a girl in a bikini. (I thought he should he should have been graded higher).
So that was my high school experience. The bar was set very low for me because that was all I was capable of. Low expectations that I lived up to and then some.
This dovetailed neatly into the raw fact that my parents were completely uninspiring. (That’s hard to write). I envy the people who have many stories about how their father or mother passionately believed in them and dutifully imparted wise council upon them. Often you will here people say they owe everything to their substantial parental guidance during their upbringing. I owe nothing. My late father was cold and callous towards me and regularly ran me down, confirming what I was told at high school. (He broached telling me about the death of my grandmother by saying, “Have you learned about about God yet at that bloody school of yours?” My reply of “Which God?”, led to him storming off). Mum was pleasant enough although rarely said anything positive. She regrets it now.
About 20 odd years ago I announced that I wanted to be a teacher. This was met with derision by my parents, but a close friend (who has gone on to become my amazingly resilient and supportive wife), encouraged me to have a crack at it. I put it off for a year before sitting the Mature Age Entrance Exam. I became worried and slightly bemused at the completion of the exam because I found it far less difficult than I imagined. A good grasp of basic mathematical concepts and broad general knowledge of the natural and political world seemed to be all that was asked of me. Still, not expecting too much was my dominant thinking. To cut to the chase, I scored better than 99.8% of entrants who had sat the exam in the last decade. This confirmed to me that nearly everyone who sat the exam in the last ten years had been as thick as raisin toast. However, I do remember thinking that maybe I could raise the bar just a little.
I entered university with of course low expectations for any real success. I rolled along fairly uneventfully for twelve months scraping by with some pass marks, and then it happened. I started my two units of sociology and met a lecturer who had high expectation for his students. He had very long hair, wore tattered jeans, (before it was fashionable), dirty flannelette shirts and finished the ensemble with decidedly worn sandals. He smoked foul smelling cheap cigars, and reeked of expensive whiskey. He was treated with disdain by the faculty and I believe there were regular complaints about his colourful language. I was having none of it. He stood out like Yoda on an NBA court to me. This guy was different!
From day one made it very clear to all in his class that he was here to teach us something about sociology, and he expected us to learn and be successful. “You will pass my class with flying colours or I’ve fucked up!” He told us the chapters of the two massive Sociology textbooks that he thought were bullshit and he wasn’t going to worry about. In the tutorials he engaged each and every student and was incredibly concise with his answers to questions. He was happy to meet me on many occasions in the uni bar and with a few beers help me with my growing problems in passing my exams. Gems like, “Piaget, mad as a cut snake, full of appalling pseudoscience and obsessed with arses, gotta love him!” I learned to embrace my psychology lessons. His advice was invaluable to me; learn what you need to learn to be successful here. If not don’t worry about being a teacher! One of his most valuable pieces of advice was straight to the point, “There’s plenty of time for critical thinking, but university aint the place for it”.
Above all he constantly reminded me and the other students that he expected us to be successful in his courses. He told us explicitly what we need to do to achieve this. If we weren’t successful he believed that was his failing not ours. Nothing was too much trouble, and his unrelenting belief in promoting high expectations for each and everyone of us resonated with me.
He didn’t last long at the university, his language and dress sense were considered “unprofessional”, and maybe they were. But his passion for his students and their success was unquestionable in my eyes. On his last day at the uni soon before my graduation we shared a beer and I thanked him again for his support. The last thing he said to me was “Fuck off and be a great teacher”. I never saw him again, but that last thing he said to me really mattered. He had high expectations of me.
If you have reached this far, Thank you and well done.