A Story About The High Expectations Conversation [The Art of the Professional Insult]

Jose VilsonEducation, Featured, Jose

“Mr. Vilson, how do you feel about us opting out because I’m thinking about it.”

“Let me tell y’all something, and this is real talk: if you have good grades and decide to opt out of this test, I ain’t mad at you …”

A student grumbled, knowing he had failed almost all of his grades throughout the school year.

“Now wait a minute. If you don’t have good grades and decide to opt out of the test, I’m not mad at you either. You haven’t been given a fair shot to succeed on this test. I’m going to do my absolute best to push you from here on out, but you gotta work with me here. But if you still don’t feel comfortable and opting out if something you and your parent make a conscientious decision about, please do.”

The students, all with different grades, had taken a series of mock tests demanded from on high to give students a sense of how the test might go. Instead of using the time to teach, I’d been asked to give a fake test in preparation for the forthcoming, very real and still fake test. The test might tell me whether they know the answers to the questions given on this test, but, until I see the questions on the test, I have little confidence that it’s assessing what I’m teaching and what they’re learning. Modern-day eugenicists love to say that standardized tests hold us (teachers and students) accountable like never before, but I was under the impression that students and parents do a good job of that already.

Because I don’t teach in ways that satisfy the test-prep advocates, does that make my work here any less urgent?

I could have told this story any time during the last twelve years, really. On a number of occasions, people questioned whether my educational philosophy was grounded in the work necessary to elevate students. Educators, especially with progressive leanings, know the depths to which other adults will go to discard and destroy the tenets to which we abide. They assume that letting students argue among each other is a sign of classroom mismanagement. They see unseated students as disorganized and noisy classrooms as too loose. They also never hear the plethora of students who come back from their high schools thanking me for setting them up for success during freshman year.

It reminds me of when the elders used to say, “Vilson, smile, nod, and close that door.” While I love having an open door policy, I understand why so many of my people locked the gates behind them.

If our urgency is based on closing an achievement gap that was never meant to be shut, then how urgent are we about opportunity? How many higher-ups and pundits preaching high expectations have high expectations for the state and federal governments that hold low expectations for our neighborhoods? What is urgency to a teacher whose students ran to his door thanks to the gloating of a Trump-supporting substitute? What’s it like to carry the burdens and complicity of our school system when so many others refuse to share that weight? Why are we working with different frameworks for how we regard students?

What’s it like to look into these burgeoning young adults, look them in their weary eyes, and tell them that the system has not served them well? And that you blame yourself first and foremost for not being strong enough to push that boulder for them?

If you don’t know, then you don’t know. It’s OK to humble thyself enough, but enough with the high expectations skullduggery if our expectations are higher than the other adults that act so irresponsibly in our system.

What’s more, after this conversation, I spent an entire week imploring, pleading, begging students to reach above the lot they were granted. They were doing so right in front of me, learning from each other, pushing each other to achieve, and doing so with the vernacular our society reviles. They’re also hurrying up. After spring break, they have tests coming. Our state deems it so.