What happens when educators and parents set high expectations for students?
Annie Sullivan was hired to tutor a young Helen Keller, at the time an unruly deaf and blind child. Sullivan immediately raised the expectation for how Helen would behave. In "The Miracle Worker," a film about their true story, this leads to a heart-wrenching physical battle that leaves them both crying on the floor.
A little later, Sullivan and Keller reached a breakthrough moment as the teacher spelled a word into the child’s palm. As Helen wrote in her autobiography years later,
“I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
Keller graduated with honors from Radcliffe College and became a renowned writer and public speaker because a teacher goaded her to recast her challenges from an excuse for poor table manners into “barriers that could be swept away.”
Maya Angelou faced her own barriers as a child. As a result of traumatic incidents, Angelou refused to speak from ages seven to 12. She found solace in poetry, and memorized the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and others.
Angelou describes how a teacher, Mrs. Flowers, convinced her to speak:
“She said, ‘You don’t love poetry.’ And it was the cruelest thing I think she could have done. Because she seemed to be taking my only friend. She said, ‘You can’t love poetry. In order to love poetry, you must speak it. You must feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.’ … She was trying to shock me. And one day I went under the house … and I tried poetry. And I had a voice. I had a voice.”
Decades later, that voice was used to read a poem at President Clinton's inauguration.
A similar encounter with a teacher helped create one of the great voices of the past half-century. When James Earl Jones went to high school, he was functionally mute, as a result of a severe stutter he developed at the age of five.
In a 2010 interview with The Daily Mail, Jones called a high school English teacher, Donald Crouch, "'the father of my voice." Crouch challenged Jones to prove that he did not plagiarize a poem by reading it out loud from memory in class. "Which I did. As they were my own words, I got through it," Jones said. Crouch continued to encourage Jones to read out loud every day, and get involved in debates.
For Helen Keller, Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones, Anne Sullivan and Mrs. Flowers and Donald Crouch all were the “one person” that Aimee Mullins says every child needs.
Mullins is an athlete, model, actress, and motivational speaker, who had her legs amputated below the knee shortly after birth. In a TED Talk titled "The Opportunity of Adversity," Mullins spoke the hideous synonyms she found in a thesaurus for the word “disabled.” What upset her, she said, weren’t the words themselves, but rather “the values behind the words and how we construct those values.”
For a child to overcome the low expectations set by labels or value constructs, Mullins said,
“all you really need is one person to show you the epiphany of your own power and you’re off. If you can hand somebody the key to [her] own power, the human spirit is so receptive, if you…open a door for [people] at a crucial moment, you are educating them in the best sense. You are teaching them to open doors for themselves."
If empowering students to reach their true potential is the root of education, how do educators achieve it?
Angela Maiers, a former teacher turned educational consultant, focuses on the power of words. In a post titled, “The Power of Words – Examining Teacher Talk,” she writes that, “if we choose our words wisely, our language can help students envision success, stretch their thinking, [and] advance independent behaviors and actions."
Steven R. Schrader, a language teacher in Japan, defines empowerment as “helping learners become aware that they can have an impact on their environment, and can exert some control over their circumstances.” Schrader writes that, when we use language to remind young people, especially those marginalized by society, of their potential, we give control over their circumstances back to them.
Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman has spoken about the powerful effect when students do envison success, exert control over their circumstances, and see the epiphany of their own power.
In a July 2009 interview with Harvard University’s Charles Ogletree at the Aspen Institute, she argued that the present state of minority education in the U.S. may be worse than in the days of segregation, asserting that back then,
“We had teachers who had very high expectations....We were going to learn our tables, we were going to learn how to read. And we had this community buffer, because while the external world told us we weren’t important and couldn’t succeed, our parents said it wasn’t so … our teachers said it wasn’t so, our preacher said it wasn’t so, and so we knew it wasn’t so. … And we always were taught that we could change the world, and we had these role models everywhere. That’s missing today for so many of our children.”
Do you have high expectations for your students?
Are you the "one person" students need to learn to open doors for themselves?