One morning I got to school and found all the students in a long tense mass outside the door. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is it locked?” It wasn’t late; we still had at least 20 minutes until school would start. Then I saw the police at the door. They saw me too. “Are you staff? Come on through,” called one officer. I went in, and as I passed the door, I realized they were there to search all the students, one by one, as they entered the school. “What’s going on?” I asked as I passed. “Routine check,” he replied.
The students filtered mutely into first period, one at a time; some didn’t get through the line until first period was already over. They weren’t angry. They were something much worse: they were used to it.
We never found out what it was about.
I remember a day when I was in high school, seventeen. It was one of those days when I had study hall after lunch senior year, and I could leave campus for two glorious hours in the middle of the day. I passed the security guard leaving, but of course she didn’t look at me twice. The security guard was there to stop strangers from wandering onto campus--not to keep students in.
I don’t remember being told explicitly: We trust you. We expect you to succeed. It was all around us; we breathed their trust like air.
It’s a well-known mindfulness trick that people tend to behave the way we expect. This is doubly, triply true when it comes to teenagers, who are in a constant state of change as they figure out what kind of people they want to be.
We talk so often of the achievement gap in schools, but I think there are other gaps, less seen, just as damaging. One of them is the trust gap.
One of my students took this picture* from his apartment window. Right before he took it, he had an encounter with a policeman who yelled at him for sitting in the hallway of the apartment building where he lived. As he told this story, everyone in the class nodded. This kind of thing happens all the time, they said. Some of them said they use stories like this as motivation--to fuel their desire to overturn everyone’s expectations. Some of them said it was depressing, but they had learned to live with it. Some of them said they understood why these kinds of things occurred, that everyone has a part to play in creating or breaking stereotypes. These are my IB students, brilliant and passionate, picking apart experiences and images to analyze the hidden threads of meaning, examining each thought they have from multiple angles.
I’m working on recognizing things in life I can’t control, and things I can. I have very little control over society’s expectations of my students, but I have a lot of control over my own. I think that one of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher is finding ways to say these things without words to my students: I trust you. I believe in you. You can do this. I expect you to succeed. When they mess up, I tell them I’m disappointed, because I expected better. When they succeed, I’m thrilled, but I try not to be not surprised.
I am not perfect at this, obviously. I’m working on not beating myself up about that either.
One of the best compliments I ever got from a student: she turned in a 3,000 word essay, the longest thing she had ever written. I knew that she had gotten started late, and I was impressed that she had pulled it off by the deadline. I asked her how she had beaten the desire to procrastinate.
She just said: “I knew that you expected me to do it.”
*photography credit to my student, who kindly allowed me to repost it here