Here is where high expectations are set - firmly! We have discussed that we will continue to build our classroom community on a daily basis all year long and why that is important. Then I do an informal survey, asking the students how many of them make all A's, B's, etc. My point is not to embarrass anyone, but to get an idea of how the students already think of themselves as learners. It was amazing to me as a fourth grade teacher how many students, nine years old, came into my classroom on the first day of school believing that they were stupid, slow, losers, failures and would always be so.
I pointed to a huge banner across the front of my classroom (which our art teacher has so graciously created for me). It said:
If It Isn't Good, It Isn't Done!
I then informed the students that NO ONE in this class would EVER make a grade of less than a B. If I were back in the classroom today I would change that to "No one in this classroom will ever make a grade of less than an A!"
Many of the students looked at me with incredulity - they simply could not conceive of the possibility of making grades that high. But I promised them that they would, and that I would help them. Essentially I told them that learning and succeeding was NOT AN OPTION in this classroom.
Let me make one thing clear right now (I sound like Richard Nixon here.) The students in this classroom were a diverse group, except that none of them were identified/labeled as GT (gifted and talented). We had regular kids, and lower level achievers, and some students were "special ed". Some came from homes with good incomes, and some students lived in poverty (about half of them). Also, for about half of the students, English was a second language and not spoken at home. There were plenty of family conflicts, dysfunctions and crises to go around - for example, parents in prison, siblings in constant trouble with the law, drunkenness, divorce, boyfriends running off with mom's paycheck so the child had no way to purchase school supplies. I'll never forget a little boy coming to me on the second day of school, tears streaming down his face. He was ashamed and thought he would be in trouble because he had no school supplies. Mom's boyfriend took her paycheck and left.
So these students weren't what some teachers would call "the cream of the cream of the crop". They were good, regular people. And these students achieved beyond their wildest expectations.
I always say to teachers: "What are you really telling a student when you assign them a grade of 42, or 57 or 73? You are telling them two things:
1. You are not smart.
2. You do not have to learn this"
So, just do not let learning something be optional. Do NOT let failure be optional. There are ways to set up, organize and run classrooms, curriculum and instruction that WILL enable the students to learn all the content and skills you want them to learn, and they will learn them at much higher levels than you, or they, expected.
Get the classroom and curriculum set up, teach them the strategies, provide the support, maintain the highest expectations, and then - get out of their way! One of the biggest problems we have in education today is seriously, shamefully low expectations.
Once your students realize that you are serious, and they begin to experience success, their self-confidence will grow. They will be willing to take on much greater challenges than they every have before, and succeed.
That's what school is all about!