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The Tempest: The Temptation to Lower Expectations

A quick read on the temptation to lower expectations for students of color.

by Herneshia Dukes

A colleague recently asked for my contribution to a Forbes article addressing the most common misconceptions urban educators have when working with students of color. It took 30 seconds before I landed on the topic of expectations. It's the single most common trap that educators (of color or white, veterans or rookies) fall into.

A common misconception that educators make is assuming that children of color are unable to engage with rigorous, thought-provoking content. Or even worse, that students of color should not be “forced” to think critically and analytically about the world around them.

By lowering the level of conceptual and evaluative thinking, some educators perceive that they are creating greater opportunities for immediate success. There is a sense of pride and achievement that falsely permeates these classrooms. Students squeal in joy as they answer surface-level questions and gain only a factual understanding of a multi-faceted topic. Never quite realizing that there’s an entire web of complexity left hidden from view. These educators believe, in some way, they are shielding our students from the harsh realities of a biased and inequitable education system.

Teachers want their students to feel encouraged and successful, but at what cost? When we make assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of students based on their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status or background, we’re engaging in the same systemic behavior that has widened the opportunity gap for black and brown children. By not exposing students of color to conceptual understanding, complex paradigms and rigorous intellectual stimulation, we stifle their ability to become societal contributors.

I remember my first year as an urban educator. I was fresh out of college and assigned to teach twelfth-grade British Literature. After spending weeks preparing my syllabus and selecting our readings, it was time for me to meet the students I’d spend the next year growing with. As I reviewed our syllabus aloud, I scanned the room and took note of the astonished faces. I was speaking “Greek”. In that moment, I could have easily caved. We could have spent the year watching Romeo and Juliet or I could have supplemented the material with more straightforward texts. On average, my students were reading 3-4 grade levels behind. Why not spiral in 9th grade material? I adamantly refused to fall in that trap. In one academic year, my scholars learned about glory and humility in Beowulf. They gasped and wept as they explored ambition and betrayal in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They engaged in riveting debates surrounding the disturbing symbolism in Heart of Darkness. After spending a unit studying British poetry and the legends behind the words, they built a poetry cafe and crafted original writings emulating their favorite British poets. There was life between our walls. A spark had been ignited. Yes, there were challenging times and moments of perplexion. Yet, those micro moments only propelled the desire, and illuminated the need, for us to dive deeper.

It is the role of educators to provide an environment that exposes students to every level of learning. Educators should take pride in creating spaces that allow students to grapple with content, explore new ideas, assess theories, evaluate outcomes, manipulate paradigms and create solutions. It’s through exposure to challenging concepts that our students develop the intellect, capabilities and platform needed to become systemic disruptors and world changers.

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