Teachers' Beliefs Have the Power to Transform

Whenever I talk with teachers and leaders of high-performing schools with large populations of children of color and children from low-income families, I am always struck by the strength of their belief that their students can meet high standards.

This isn't because they are naïve. Rather, they have seen children transform when their schools have high expectations of them and provide excellent instruction wrapped in a respectful culture.

Kids who arrive from another school acting "crazy," in the words of Mary Lang, the principal of North Godwin Elementary School just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, learn pretty quickly that, as she puts it, "we don't act that way here." Or, as she recently told me she says to some students, "You don't have to worry -- we won't allow anyone to hurt you here, so you don't have to act that way."

That kind of assurance wouldn't amount to much, though, if it weren't coupled with teachers' high expectations for academic learning. Kids know when they are not expected to do very much or do very well on assignments. And although some kids might shut down and just fade away when not much is expected of them, others get angry and act out.

That was the message I saw Wes Moore relay to a conference of teachers last month. Moore, an author, combat veteran, and a frequent keynote speaker and television host, talked about how the day he was accepted as a Rhodes Scholar he read about another young African American man from Baltimore named Wes Moore who had been arrested for armed robbery that resulted in the death of a police officer. Fascinated by the parallels in their lives -- both raised by single mothers from the same area of Baltimore -- Moore wrote The Other Wes Moore after visiting his name-twin in prison and hearing from him about how he had grown up expecting that he didn't have much of a future.

Moore told the teachers at the American Federation of Teachers TEACH conference that many say that people are products of their environment.

That's not right, he said -- "they are products of their expectations."

Teachers are the ones, he said, whose expectations can help keep students from being "the other."

The audience gave him a thunderous standing ovation, and I thought other educators would like to hear that message at the beginning of the school year.