It All Starts With Expectations: What Teachers Do

2011Symposium_1_2If there is one thing a teacher must do it is this: expect change. We teachers are in the business of bringing about changes in our students; changes in their behaviors, attitudes, and proficiencies. Daily, we know this to be true, but the slowness with which change often takes place can easily make it difficult to see some changes taking place.  We become accustomed to certain behaviors from certain students. These include regularly making little attempt to be prepared, frequently giving attention to things other than your instruction, often not knowing what to do or showing little or no improvement at all. What change do we expect to find in students exhibiting these behaviors as we continue to teach them week after week?

It is natural to have high expectations for students who are nearly always on-task and show constant improvement, and low expectations for students who are not showing improvement. But we better serve all students if we have high expectations for each of them. We can and should expect that all of our students will do what we ask of them, that all of our students will practice what we teach at least long enough to do it right, and that all students will give their best effort along the way. In most cases, what we teach must include not only what we want them to learn, but also how they can most efficiently and effectively learn. The best teachers I’ve had made it clear what I needed to do in order to learn what they were teaching me. For example, in my college string methods class, double bassist Gary Karr taught us that lower notes required a slower bow speed, and higher notes required a faster bow speed. IfExpectations he just taught it like that, forgetful students like me would have easily confused this teaching, and wondered if slower bow speeds were for higher notes or lower notes. But the rhyme “the lower the slower” forever embedded it in my mind. The late Kalmen Opperman summarized how to play the clarinet with the refrain “push up, close off, and blow.” With this in mind, I had three points of reference to monitor as I practiced, checking my right thumb, embouchure, and breathing. All three had to be right, Other teachers had taught me breath management, but not the others. He also taught me to practice passages with different articulation patterns to achieve evenness. Other clarinet teachers simply told me to keep practicing. Left to my own devices with only “keep practicing” to go on, I made little progress. I needed to be taught what to do when I practiced before I could see my effort result in growth as a clarinet player.

In classes where I am teaching twenty or more students at a time, my students need to practice attentiveness before they can learn or practice anything. They must learn to look and listen, to ask questions as well as answer them, and learn to be a fully participating part of a class. I expect them to practice doing these things everyday, and to use these strategies to learn and practice the curricular content of the course they are in and that I am teaching. None of this happens instantly or even quickly. It will be a process, in some cases a long process of steady growth before the final expectation is met. But along the way, I expect that they will demonstrate growth in all of these areas. Some will not want to try, and that is one of the many great challenges of teaching. I must show them that it is worth their while to try, and to trust my confidence that they will succeed if they do. Every now and then success at something comes easily, but it is never so indefinitely. When someone fails to apply effort, someone else will eventually surpass their greatest achievement. Sooner or later, and sooner for most of us, success is bought with effort, and the greatest of successes is available for a high price in success. I expect all of my students to be college-ready when they finish high school, and I expect my work with students, who range in age from 3 to 13 years, to be an important segment of that preparation. Some days it doesn’t feel like any of that will happen with some of them, but it is on those days that expecting great things is most important.

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