Expectations and “At-Risk” Children

By L. C. Clark

My principal and I have a fine working relationship. He has come to understand that I do not “do” Halloween (even as a child I never liked the holiday), and I never nag him about scheduling difficulties before 8:30 a.m. We share a common philosophy of education and know precisely why we come to work each morning—the kids! Generally, we are civil and never have “words” in the presence of others unless we are in the midst of a staff meeting where all those assembled have “lost it,” know they have lost it, and have every intention of forgetting what was said (or shouted) upon entering the local watering hole. Yes, Mr. Smythe and I are doing quite well except for one thing. In my opinion, he does not hold the same expectations for my minority children, many of whom come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than most of the majority children. These children are often referred to as children “at-risk.”

Before I continue, please understand that I do not believe this man is bigoted or lacking in respect for these children. On the contrary, I feel that his expectations come out of deep concern and caring for them. It is just that I see him as being so sensitive to the many difficulties and disasters which often occur in the children’s home environments that he cannot accept the notion that even in the midst of crisis they have a responsibility to get an education, and we have a responsibility to expect them to go about acquiring one.

Though we do share a common philosophy of education, our particular methods of implementing our shared beliefs are quite different. I am of the opinion that his methodology, which focuses on assisting children in building self-esteem exclusively through the affective domain, manifests itself in lower expectations of the children. These lower expectations negatively influence the children’s ability to grow intellectually and socially. In other words, he focuses on the idea that by being tolerant and understanding of their difficulties in the school setting and not pushing too often or too hard we can help them to develop higher self-esteem. I, on the other hand, assert that if children are firmly and continually encouraged to function in school by developing appropriate school behaviors to facilitate their learning, their self-esteem will rise because they will see themselves as learners, capable of functioning fully in an academic setting.

Jamie’s Story

I can illustrate our dilemma by describing an incident which transpired several months into the last school year.

Jamie, one of my 17 low achieving math students, came running into class approximately 5 minutes after the class began. I inquired as to his previous whereabouts. Jamie told me he had been in the administrative assistant’s office trying to get out of losing his lunch recess for “roofing” a ball. I reminded him that math class began at 9:10 sharp, and it was to his benefit to be on time so as not to feel lost or confused during the class discussion of the day’s topic.

I continued the lesson and watched as Jamie retrieved his book and a piece of paper. As various children came up to the chalkboard to solve problems, I noticed that Jamie was not writing. I walked over to him and asked if he had a pencil or needed a new one. He did not have a pencil, so I sent him over to a cabinet to get one.

Twenty-five minutes into the period, students were instructed to have a partner look over their homework before handing it in and going on to their next assignment. Jamie did not move. I went over to him and asked if there was a problem. He informed me that he had not done his homework. (Out of 7 assignments due that week Jamie handed in two. Those two papers were completed because I sat with him during his study break as he worked independently.) I told Jamie to see me before reporting to his lunch recess with the administrative assistant. Then, I instructed him to go to one of the math stations to get a class assignment completed.

After school I related Jamie’s behavior and performance to Mr. Smythe, hoping to get some feedback on how to get Jamie back on track in math. I reminded him that while Jamie had demonstrated good understanding of some number concepts and had done well with his basic facts (addition, subtraction, and multiplication through the six table), his overall rating was far below average and his progress was erratic.

Mr. Smythe stood in silence for a moment and then proceeded to tell me that it was possible that Jamie had had difficulty in class because of an incident which had occurred in his home last evening that required police involvement. I acknowledged his comment and waited for his input regarding alternatives for assisting Jamie with his learning. Neither of us spoke, and it dawned on me that what he had said about the previous evening was his response to my (and Jamie’s) dilemma. It was somewhat unnerving, but I decided that the time had come for the issue of expectations to be addressed. My question was: “How many times are we going to use the problems that happen at home to excuse ourselves from requiring Jamie to function as a learner in an academic setting?”

“At Risk” of Not Being Taught

The “Jamie” story, one of many, has serious implications for teachers, administrators, and, most especially, students who are considered to be “at-risk.” While I am sure there are some people in schools who do not believe all children can learn, I contend that the majority are in education because they know all children can learn, and they want to facilitate the process. However, I have observed that oversensitivity which manifests itself in repeated acceptance of children’s problems while not addressing solutions involving academic concerns is inappropriate for several reasons.

First, it presumes that the problem is temporary. This can lull teachers and administrators into thinking that everything will be all right tomorrow (next week, next year). Some children are in dysfunctional families and it is highly unlikely that the conditions precipitating their difficulties will be relieved during their school years. However, this does not mean that parents are not to be notified or looked to for assistance when children do not behave appropriately.

For instance, in developing a plan to get Jamie to be more responsible about being prepared and on time for class, I contacted his grandmother. I explained Jamie’s problem and how it was hurting him academically, then solicited her ideas for what I (and his other teachers, as well) could do to change his behavior. She told me that Jamie liked to watch television after dinner, and she would not allow him to watch T.V. if he did not “act right” in school. After sharing other possibilities, we agreed that whenever Jamie acted irresponsibly he would: (1) call home at the end of the school day to tell his grandmother of the accumulated time wasted due to being tardy or unprepared and (2) lose 30 minutes or more of viewing time depending on the accumulated time and frequency of offenses.

By the end of the third marking period in April, Jamie was occasionally late and unprepared, but he had come to understand that he had to take responsibility for his behavior and the consequences of his actions.

The second reason not addressing solutions is inappropriate is that not working on a solution with a child takes away his or her opportunity to develop positive ways to cope within the school, as well as outside of its walls, when problems arise. Case in point, Jamie often missed out on participating in extracurricular events, such as T-ball and softball, because he would fail to take the flyer home or forget to return the permission slip on time.

One day some other children were getting ready to go to an after school practice when Jamie became angry and started yelling. He confronted one of the boys, called him “stupid” and the softball team “dumb.” I moved Jamie away from the boy, then asked him if he had received the same Tball form at the same time as the other children. When he said he had, I told him to think about why he was not on the team. Jamie left to go home.

The following morning I asked Jamie if he now knew why he was not on the team. He was silent for awhile and then admitted that he had forgotten to return the slip. I asked if he knew what he would do next time to make sure he got the chance to get on the team. He replied, “Put it (the slip) in my pocket and bring it back the next day.” I suggested he apologize to the other boy. Jamie knew what his responsibility was and how to carry it out.

The final reason has to do with what I see as the primary tasks of a school—teaching and learning. It is my firm belief that when children, teachers, and administrators continually turn away from these fundamental tasks, the children, particularly those already deemed “at-risk,” are placed in a cycle, the continuance of which is clearly detrimental to their individual lives and, in time, the society.

Compassion is Not Enough

By adhering to a relativistic philosophy, educators in effect lock those considered to be “disadvantaged” or “at-risk” into the very situations from which education should free them. Intended acts of compassion result in outcomes which promote subtle racism. While I hold the position that expectations must reflect a belief in a child’s ability to meet the established standards of an academic community, I am not advocating such a rigid adherence to any standard that the humanity of a child be sacrificed. Rather, I am insisting that compassion be tempered with reason, so that a child deemed “at-risk” be allowed to fully develop and experience his or her power—intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

The issue of expectations which arose in my relationship with my principal has not been resolved and I must now address why it may not be for awhile, if ever. It is extremely difficult to bring the word “racism” into a discussion without creating either discomfort (which makes the dialogue hesitant and shallow) or dissension (which threatens to cut off dialogue completely). But, realizing that holding lower expectations for “at-risk” youngsters (even out of compassion) threatens their intellectual and social/emotional growth commands that the courage to acknowledge the real problem be found.

A relationship, whether personal or professional, reflects the degree of trust and respect between the individuals involved. I believe that between my principal and myself there exists a level of trust and respect that will advance the dialogue which needs to begin and hold the relationship intact even as we may stand against one another.

L.C. Clark is an elementary school teacher in New York State.