Raising the bar — for all

Last winter I lied to my math class for four whole weeks. 

Let me explain: In fourth grade we have our students take a pretest, and then, using the results, we group them by how much they already know about the concepts. 

Last winter, I taught the “high” group. I loved moving at a fast pace and throwing out puzzle challenges. My students seemed thrilled to solve the difficult problems. And why wouldn’t they be? They’d spent the past few years knowing they were “good” at math.

For the next unit, we decided to switch which teacher taught which group, and I was put in charge of the “second lowest” cluster. 

It wasn’t until I heard a student shout to me in the hallway — “Mrs. Wangen, I’m in YOUR group this time!” — that I realized the kids knew exactly which teacher taught the “high” group, and they assumed I was teaching it again.

On my first day with my new group, I inadvertently started on autopilot, using my usual fast-paced math-challenge mode. That’s when I wondered: Why NOT treat this new group as if they were the “high” group? 

Bring it on

So I did. I lectured at a faster pace than normal, and supported them when they needed it. I taught them as if they were “gifted” in math, and said things like, “Well, if any group can solve this problem, you guys can,” and, “I KNEW this group would get this!” 

Sometimes I’d put a problem on the board and pretend to change my mind, saying, “Nah, this one’s too hard: It’s a FIFTH-grade problem,” only to be followed by a chorus of objections such as, “Bring it on, Mrs. Wangen.” 

And you know what?

My students made it through the unit faster than any group I’d had in the past, simply because I changed my mindset about what they were capable of.

After 17 years of teaching fourth grade, I was struck by a simple question: What if we raise the bar for EVERYONE, ALL of the time, including children with special needs? 

So I set out to gather all I could from the experts on how to change our thinking and raise our expectations as educators and as parents. 

Setting high expectations

There’s a lot of talk these days about having a growth mindset. According to psychology professor Carol Dweck, “In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.” 

Dweck, as well as many other experts, wants kids to associate success with effort, not their supposed innate ability. 

This applies to educators, too. How many times have I been guilty of “babying” my children and students? I think we all set out to help kids do their best, but we don’t necessarily realize we need to make sure they feel capable first. 

This is important when working with children with special needs, too. I spoke with a local couple, Mike and Michelle Bawek, who have eight children, both adopted and biological, including some with special needs. The Baweks emphasized how every child is different. Regardless of what research may show, or what society may expect of children with different labels, who’s to say what each child is capable of achieving? 

The Pygmalion effect 

An interesting thing happened when I was teaching that second math class. When I started out, I admit, there may have been some exaggerated encouragement. But as I continued, I realized that I believed they could learn at a higher level. 

This results in the Pygmalion effect, or as Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “when the belief in another’s potential brings that potential to life.” 

It sounds so simple — that all anyone really needs is someone to believe. 

I reached out to Katie Klitzke, a special education teacher in Shakopee. She recommends parents and educators set the same expectations for special needs kids and their peers. 

Otherwise, Klitzke says, “They may feel that they can get away with doing less.” 

Why shouldn’t parents and educators expect the same for all kids — and just change the support we give to get them there? 

There’s a cartoon that’s become popular in educator circles that illustrates uniform expectations for all kids: It shows three people of various heights trying to see over a fence. One can already see, one needs a box to stand on and one needs two boxes. 

Don’t we want them all to simply “see?” We just need to change what we give them to do that.

Toddlers, too! 

As I began to embrace the idea of raising expectations, the concept started to seep into how I looked at my own kids. One day I came home from work, exhausted as usual. I tumbled in the door with a “starving” school-ager and a tantrumming toddler in tow, cursing myself for volunteering to bake cookies for Grandparents Day. 

The toddler immediately began to push limits. Frustration crept in and — just as I was about to redirect him, telling him slowly and deliberately what was “OK” to do — I realized: He just wants a little control and independence. 

So I raised the bar. I asked him to do jobs like turn on the mixer for the cookie batter, and throw away empty boxes and paper towels. 

I even changed the way I addressed him. I traded the usual “No, no, Buddy,” to “Actually, I don’t need butter. But can you grab the spoon from the drawer?” 

It turns out, all people, even 2-year-old ones, want to feel effective and successful. 

I’m certainly not done exploring this concept. But for now, I hope to change my approach and raise expectations for all children. 

There is no “one size fits all” — and there never has been. 

I hope to clear out any defeatist negative thinking, not only in my classroom, but also as a parent in my daily life. 

As Achor notes in his book, our happiness is directly connected to what we believe we can do. 

Susan Wangen is a Minnesota native and a fourth-grade teacher in the southwest suburbs, where she lives with her husband and two kids. Follow her blog at throughthetreetops.wordpress.com.