What does it mean to offer our students both compassion AND high expectations?

by | 01.19.21

Denisha Saucedo is a sixth grade teacher in Kent, Washington. Follow her on Twitter @DenishaSaucedo.

As a student of color, I didn’t have the best experience in school. My family migrated from Jamaica, and I’m a first-generation American. When I got to school, there were a lot of assumptions made about me and my life – and my teachers had lower expectations for me than they had for other students. I think teachers looked at me and said, “Oh, she comes from a single-parent home, from an immigrant family. Oh, she needs help.”

At the time, I wanted to be a writer, but my writing teacher was so focused on building me up that she didn’t push me to grow. I think she was just impressed that this kid from a “broken home” had some talent, and instead of saying, “Wow, you have an amazing voice, but this is where you could be pushing yourself,” she just told me the writing was “amazing” and let it end there. Because I wasn’t pushed as a writer, I wasn’t able to address the gaps in my writing skills until I got to college. I looked at other students’ writing, saw what my own was missing,  and thought, “I was supposed to learn all this?”

Something clicked for me right then. I realized I had never really been pushed to achieve as much as I could have. What really helps students succeed are teachers who believe in them and who push them to achieve their full potential. I decided then to change my major and become a teacher, so I could create a classroom with high expectations for every kid.

As teachers, we’re all trying to do our best by every student. I truly believe that. But sometimes our biases can get in the way of our students’ achievement. We use our students’ circumstances as an excuse to keep from pushing them to meet high expectations. Does holding kids to high expectations mean I don’t address the needs they bring into the classroom? No, of course not. 

Students who aren’t used to being held to high expectations first have to believe that school is for them. Building strong relationships is key. Once students see that you care about them and that they can trust you, you can guide them through the process of finding their own purpose in school – finding their own “why” – and pushing them to achieve all they are capable of. Deepening relationships with students also means learning their work, their potential and what they are capable of. 

I aim to be the teacher who says: No matter what your situation is, when you’re here, you’re safe, and you can learn. If you need food or a pencil or whatever else to help you learn, I got you, or I will work with the school to figure something out. But I’m not going to lower my expectations for you. In here, you can learn, and you will.

More on the power of high expectations for all: https://www.edutopia.org/video/high-expectations-students-learn-rise-occasion

A process for communicating high expectations to all students: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/High-Expectations-for-All.aspx

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