I was not a good academic student in high school, probably like some of you. When I went to Luther College I was placed on academic probation, which meant that if I didn’t raise my grades to a certain grade point average, I would have to leave. I did accomplish the goal and I remember the letter that the college sent to my parents congratulating me on my good work. All through my nine years of college, I never again had a problem with grades. Well, except for the year when I failed physiology but that’s a whole other story.
As a college teacher, I recall many conversations with colleagues about how some students just were not ready for college work and how difficult it was, for example, to write a paper. This is why most colleges have some sort of remedial classes. The University of Minnesota at one time had a "general college" for students who needed a boost. They had to perform at a certain level in order to move on out of the general college to the regular university. It was a good program.
I was never big on grade point averages and achievement test scores, because there have been many studies that point out the low correlation between grade point average and success in later life. We all have friends who may not have gone on to college but have created their own businesses and lead productive and happy lives. Then there are people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who dropped out or never went to college.
Still, we want our young people to leave high school with a "good education." This means that they should have at the very minimum the skills needed to do basic math, write a good sentence and know a verb from a noun and know where South Africa is. They should also know something about how our government operates, some knowledge of history, geography and the difference between kilometers and miles.
When Jay Leno had his late night talk show, he had a segment called Jaywalking. He would talk to people on the street and ask them simple questions like, "What is the tallest mountain in the world?" Answer: "Mount Rushmore." "What is the largest country in South America?" Answer: "Africa." "If you met some people from Denmark, what would you call them?" Answer: "Denmarkians." "What language do they speak in Great Britain?" Answer: "British." "Do you know any words in British?" Answer: "No."
In 1968, a best selling education book titled "Pygmalion in the Classroom" by Robert Rosenthal found that teachers who induced high expectations from their students led to high levels of IQ test performance. The opposite was true of teachers who Induced low expectations. This concept was demonstrated in the movie "Stand and Deliver," which portrayed the experiences of real life teacher, Jaime Escalante, a Bolivian-American educator known for teaching students calculus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.
He shocked everyone when Garfield was one of the top schools in the U.S. for having students who passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. He did it by telling his mostly Hispanic students they had math in their blood and with "ganas" or desire that he would supply, they could do anything.
Although I am an advocate for a 100% gradation rate, I am not an advocate for just passing out diplomas without meeting standards. How is it possible, then, to help students achieve at a higher level without costing a district more money?
It doesn’t cost anything for teachers to do what Jaime Escalante did and that was relentlessly remind students that they could achieve at a higher level. The key word here is "relentlessly." You can’t just say you expect students to do better, you have to instill it in the minds of students over and over and over again. What’s the cost? Zero dollars.
What if students still aren’t performing? I believe in the axiom—I think it was Mark Twain—"If at first you don’t succeed, try try again but don’t be a darn fool about it." Teachers need to try something different, which could be a myriad of strategies and most of these hinge on personalizing the teaching to fit that student. The key is "do something different."
Jaime Escalante wanted to show that his students who were not expected to do well that they could do better. To do so he knew he had to increase his ability tenfold to motivate his students. This is where good teachers are separated from mediocre teachers—motivation. Motivation skills don’t cost anything. You just have to pull more tricks out of the hat when they are needed and good teachers have a hat full and they keep looking for more.
How important is confidence? The Dalai Lama said, "With one’s own potential and self-confidence, one can build a better world." What can one do without confidence? Not much. Pats on the back for students can do wonders. What’s the cost? Nothing.
The last no-cost strategy is probably the most important and it has to do with caring for the student. Unless the teacher demonstrates by words and deeds a genuine caring attitude towards them, students won’t perform unless they have a high level of intrinsic motivation to do so. When teachers do sincerely care, students will do anything. Why? Because caring can work both ways.
Instilling high expectations, trying something different, motivating, building confidence and caring are qualities and skills that are at no cost. But, you can’t just say you have these qualities, you have to show and demonstrate and do it relentlessly. When this is done, academic performance will increase as well as graduation rates.
(I want to remind my readers, good teaching is exhausting work but oh, so rewarding. It has been especially exhausting during COVID-19. Let’s not forget these frontline workers.)
Riddle: Can you solve this word puzzle: DO12"OR? (Answer: A foot in the door.) Half the battle of teaching and parenting is just expecting more from our young people but at a higher level than what we are now doing. Knowing more means having a foot in the door.
I have been distributing lots of posters that remind young people to graduate. If you would like some to distribute, let me know at (218) 766-9009.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.