Teachers: You get just what you 'expect'

Teachers and their expectations of students vary -- a fact that draws bitter complaints from headmasters prevented by tenure and union contracts from firing incompetent teachers.

In one Burke High School history class I visited, assistant headmaster Rosemary Sport, a black, did as she'd promised, drawing all her students into a discussion of ancient China. For the best students, who had done their homework , this meant that the students explained the difference between China's geographical and political boundaries.

But even the "non-doers" joined in criticizing the Chinese custom of arranged marriages -- and so were ready to listen with interest when their teacher explained that "you're saying that just because of the way it is in your culture , but I want to open up your minds to other ways".

That class ended on a high note, with Rosemary Sport and several of her students heading off to hear a talk by UN Ambassador Donald McHenry.

Just a few classrooms away, Joseph Day took a very different approach. The subject was the Civil War. The teacher asked, "What's the word for leaving the Union?" A student eventually volunteered "inaugurate." Mr. Day abruptly supplied the correct answer -- and spent the rest of the class writing pithy sentences about the Civil War on the blackboard for his five students to copy out.

Johnny Vann, a local school administrator and former teacher, has no sympathy for the attitude that color and family circumstances limit a student's academic abilities.

Mr. Vann believes he received a good- quality education -- because his Midwestern family valued education, because he worked hard at his own education, and because "people didn't expect less from me just because my family was poor and black."

He would like to see the same expectations operate throughout Boston's schools -- and agrees with Boston's volunteer City-Wide Educational Coalition in its conclusion that "quality education occurs when administrators and teachers believe in the potential of every student in the system and develop an effective program to maximize that potential."

Don Boyd, a black administrator at Madison Park, feels teachers' attitudes are vital. "When teachers stop looking at kids' backgrounds and having negative expectations of them," he says, "then the kids begin to improve, sometimes in very small ways and sometimes very dramatically." A Madison Park teacher, Andrew Fischer, agreed, saying that "kids are just like everyone else, they respond to the way you treat them" -- which is such a seemingly simple answer that the "expectations area" has often been ignored and is only now being given the top priority that these educators feel it deserves.

Comparing Madison Park with a neighboring high school, Mr. Fischer said that "when you treat kids like caged animals, then they are going to act that way, but when you accept that they are able to act responsibly, then they will act that way, and that's the difference between MAdison Park and [the neighboring high school]."

At South Boston High School, Geraldine Kozberg reached at same conclusion: "The single most important variable is teacher expectation." She and South Boston teacher Rosalyn Browne -- a black who leads "multicultural awareness" workshops for her fellow teachers -- call for teachers to be "committed and sensitive" to student needs.

It's only that sort of teacher, says Geraldine Kozberg, who can recognize that "the kid with so-called learning disabilities may have been just drifting through, slipping through the cracks in the system." She explained that every student must be seen as a potential success. Not all students will take advantage of the opportunities provided by good teachers, but she argues convincingly that every student should at least be given the option.

Annette Varnier, a substitute teacher with experience at a number of Boston schools, complains that at several "you are just expected to keep the students in their seats." Instead of programming students for success, too often she sees "the schools doing such a strong job of labeling kids with all kinds of defects that we just expect failure."

Madison Park's assistant headmaster, Geraldine O'Donnell, explains that positive expectations must cover the whole range of the student's life and that the school "must do the best we can to help students experience some success." She says that begins with "treating the student with respect, recognizing that the student has rights as an individual."

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