“Nope,” Luis said, pushing his assignment away.
“Yep,” I said, pushing it back.
“Why are you making me do this?”
“Because this is an English class, and that involves writing.”
“But I can’t!” Panic crept into his voice. “You’re not supposed to make me! The other teachers don’t! They know I’m dumb!”
Low Expectations and the Seeds of Self-Doubt
Although it’s been a decade since I taught sixth-grade Luis, I’ll never forget that declaration. The words tumbled out recklessly, but they had deep roots. Luis desperately wanted me to accept that he was dumb and leave him alone so that he could tuck that ugly word back inside where nobody had to look directly at it.
Luis was not dumb. He was an English language learner who also received special education services for a learning disability. Reading and writing were challenging, but he wasn’t dumb.
I’m sure Luis’s teachers never called him dumb. But the fact that we don’t say something doesn’t mean students don’t hear it.
Let’s imagine what Luis’s school experience had been like. Imagine how many times a teacher had asked the class to write a paragraph, and Luis scribbled just five words. The teacher, not wanting him to feel bad, said “Good job!” and accepted his work.
Imagine how many times he’d been given an easier text to read than his classmates. And imagine how rarely he was even required to read it. Imagine how many times his peers took notes or wrote stories while he did fill-in-the-blank activities. Imagine how many years he spent aimlessly flipping the pages of the same Captain Underpants book during silent reading.
His teachers didn’t call him dumb. They wanted him to feel successful—they differentiated his instruction, provided sentence frames, allowed peer collaboration, and attended to his emotional needs.
But Luis noticed how little was asked of him, and he had an explanation—he must be dumb.
When Nice Isn’t Enough
Everybody has implicit biases, and left unacknowledged or unchallenged, those biases can affect the expectations we hold for students. Our beliefs about a student’s abilities might be impacted by language, disability, race, culture, gender, socioeconomic level, etc. In Language, Culture, and Teaching: Critical Perspectives, Sonia Nieto explains the harm done by well-intentioned teachers who refuse to “place the same rigorous demands on their students of color as they do on white students.... Such ‘accommodations’ may unintentionally give students the message that teachers believe [they] are incapable of learning.”
There’s a fine line. The accommodations that Luis’s teachers likely provided are sound educational practices—the nuance comes in how they’re applied. Are we giving accommodations in students’ zone of proximal development, or their comfort zone? Do our accommodations empower students to access more content and higher-level thinking, or do they remove learning opportunities? Are scaffolds gradually removed as kids approach independence, or do the scaffolds anchor them in dependence?
Compassion and Rigor
One of my major pet peeves is when a teacher hears students speaking highly of another teacher and responds, “You just like her because she lets you get away with stuff, right?” And it presses the same nerve when a teacher claims, “Kids don’t like me very much because I actually expect them to work hard.”
The assumption is that one can be either a compassionate teacher or a rigorous teacher, but not both—and there’s a belief that kids don’t want rigor.
For an equitable educator, it’s not only possible but imperative to be both compassionate and rigorous. It’s what students need from us, and what they want. Kids can tell when we’re lowering the bar. They want to reach high standards, and our compassion is an essential ingredient to get them there.
Effective teaching demands that we strive to boost the achievement of marginalized students. Neither high expectations nor kind hearts can do the job alone. Zaretta Hammond calls the ideal educator a “warm demander”—one who focuses on building strong relationships with students, then draws on that wellspring of trust to hold students to high standards of deep engagement with course content.
No good comes of teachers belittling each other’s strengths. Whether warmth or demanding comes more naturally to any of us, we should be seeking out colleagues who are talented in the opposite area. We can learn from them, and they might be interested in learning from us too. Students need the best of what we all have to offer.
When Luis told me he was dumb and all his teachers knew it, I responded quietly, trying to project the calm energy I wanted him to mirror.
“I hate that anyone ever made you feel that way. I’m sorry. I never lie to you, and I’m telling you right now—you’re smart and capable of success in school. I’m going to help you prove it to yourself. Now let’s get started on this assignment together, and in a few minutes, you’ll be ready to keep working on your own.”
I don’t know if Luis remembers that conversation. But I do know that after years of testing at an intermediate ELL level, that year he scored proficient and exited our program. I’ve never seen a more shocked, happy, and proud face. Luis finally knew he wasn’t dumb.