A Tale of Two Teachers

Expectations

Oct 10

I want to tell you a story about two teachers. Both were my professors my first semester in graduate school.

Both teachers were brilliant researchers and writers, both were highly engaging teachers, and both were likable human beings.

And, I was failing both of their classes.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying. I worked really hard, attended class, did all the readings, and came in for office hours when I didn’t understand something. But, my first paper in both classes came back with a big fat C minus, the equivalent of a failing grade in my graduate program.

Now, I had always been a good student. I had only gotten one C in my life and that was in college tennis (I am no Serena Williams). I was devastated. I thought I would lose my fellowship and flunk out of the program.

Immediately I made appointments with both professors.

On the day of my appointment with Professor One, I showed up to his office a few minutes early. He waved me in and gestured to a seat across from his desk. “I’m here to talk about my paper,” I began nervously.

He templed his hands beneath his chin and nodded. “Ah yes. I was hoping you’d come in.”

“I’l like to know what I can work on to improve my performance on the next paper.”

He sat and looked at me for a moment. Then he asked, “Where did you go for undergrad?”

I named the HBCU I had attended.

“I see,” he nodded thoughtfully as if I had revealed something very important. “You’ll probably struggle with writing for the rest of your life.”

I sat there stunned. I had always been considered a strong writer. Maybe my professors at my undergraduate institution had lied to me. Maybe I wasn’t that good after all. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for grad school.

The professor sat there quietly, waiting. I sat motionless in my seat fighting back tears of despair.

Finally I got control of my voice and quietly asked, “Is there anything you suggest I do to improve so that I will do better on the next paper?”

He launched into a lecture on the importance of good writing, of good scholarship, and of good research. I listened, trying to eke out something that I could use, something that would give me hope and direction. But, after 10 minutes of his talking, I felt even more small and hopeless than before. When he finished, I thanked him for his time and scurried out of his office.

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10 Hidden Signs of Low Expectations

Thus, I didn’t have much hope for my meeting with my other professor the next day. Again, I arrived a few minutes early to her office. She was with another student, so I sat nervously in the hall waiting . The other student exited her office after a few minutes and she came into the hall and invited me in.

“I hope you’re here to talk about that paper,” she began sternly.

“Yes,” I nodded. “I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to improve for the next paper.”

“Good,” she nodded. “Because that was not graduate level writing.”

My heart sunk.

She noticed my low spirit and softened her tone. “Robyn, if you are going to make it here, you are going to have to be able to accept constructive critique. Now let’s go through this paper and I am going to show you why it doesn’t work. Then you’ll know better for next time.”

For the next 15 minutes, she went through my paper point by point and showed me where I had gone wrong. She offered suggestions for what I could do better and even complimented me where I had done something well.

“Do you understand now?” she asked once we were finished.

I nodded, relieved. I DID understand.

“Good,” she took off her glasses. “I have watched you in class. I know that you are capable of more. So here’s what I am going to do. If your next paper shows improvement, if you do everything we discussed here today, I will drop the grade for this paper.”

My heart soared. She believed in me! She thought I was capable! She offered me another chance!

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I worked harder on that next paper than I have ever worked on any paper in my life. When I turned it in, I felt good, proud of the work I had done. And when I got it back, I had earned a B+ ! Not only that, she wrote an encouraging note at the end of the paper lauding me for the progress I was making. I used what she taught me to improve on my papers for the other class as well. At the end, I got A’s in both classes. Not only that but instead of “struggling with writing for the rest of my life” I have gone on to write 10 books including several best sellers and award winners (Take that Professor X!)

I was struggling in two classes. I went to two teachers for help. One teacher judged me and left me discouraged. The other teacher believed in me and motivated me to try harder.

Which teacher are you? Are you the kind of teacher who offers hope and encouragement to your students? Are you the kind of leader who believes in your teachers even when they are struggling?

Or are you the kind of teacher or leader who judges those you serve and in doing so stifles their dreams, kills their hopes, and makes them feel they don’t belong?

How you respond to those you serve, how you convey your belief (or disbelief) in them matters. Always be careful to build their dreams instead of crushing them. Discover the right way to deliver feedback when you sign up for the 10 Hidden Signs of Low Expectations ​ tip sheet.

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(15) comments

Bridgette Bell March 8, 2017

Thank you for your transparency and the inspiration. I am glad that you did not get so discouraged by the first professor that you did not go to second one. I can only imagine the number of students who have given up because they listened to “the first teacher” and stopped believing. Great reflective question: Which Teacher Are You? I have worked and will continue to work to be the second teacher, one who believes in the capacity to do better that lies in all people. I work to bring that tenacity to the surface.

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    Robyn Jackson March 8, 2017

    I’m so glad Bridgette. We need more teachers like you.

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Winnie March 8, 2017

When I have student conferences with my writing students I always find two positive for every mistake. Sometimes it is difficult but I look for spelling and punctuation to help with the positive or the use of the organizer. If I leave them defeated U lose the battle not them.

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    Robyn Jackson March 8, 2017

    So true Winnie!

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March 8, 2017

Right on … so hard to help folks learn this lesson! I like to talk about my favourite quote from JM Barrie, writer of Peter Pan. “Always be a little kinder than necessary. ” makes you think!

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    Robyn Jackson March 8, 2017

    Beth, I have never heard this quote before. I’m stealing it! 😉

    Reply
dsanders March 8, 2017

Thank you, Robyn. This was a powerful story, especially for teachers and leaders at this time of year. Spring fever hits, and our students seem more apathetic than usual, especially my 8th graders. Like my students, I needed this encouraging word, words that tell me that all of my “I will not let you fail speeches” will help. Words that encourage me to persevere and keep on trying each day to help them succeed.
Teaching is a calling and a matter of the heart. Most of us never give up hope that our students can succeed, and we spend hours encouraging them and giving those needed second chances to relearn and redo. At my school, we LIFT students each Wednesday, letting them fine tune their formative assignments and redo quizzes and assessments for mastery.Sometimes, we too, get discouraged.
So, thank you for the encouraging story. Like my peers, I need LIFTING up and encouragement! Debbie

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    Robyn Jackson March 8, 2017

    Deborah, your comment LIFTed me up!

    Reply
Brian Dentry March 8, 2017

“Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities – that’s training or instruction
– but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed.” (Thomas Moore)

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Jacquelyn Houston March 8, 2017

Robyn, you hit this proverbial nail directly on the head of this point. How one’s ability is affirmed and encouraged often provides the motivation needed to succeed in overcoming an obstacle when faced with failure or defeat.

Often times, the person who has the opportunity to offer encouragement when giving feedback is focused on him or herself instead of focusing on the recipient. Result, leaving that person feeling exactly as you felt. However, the good news was that you were able to grow in spite of it and become a tremendous coach for others. That is greatly appreciated.

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    Robyn Jackson March 8, 2017

    Thanks Jacquelyn. You are so right!

    Reply
Charlotte March 8, 2017

Thank you for the inspiring words and challenge to be positive with our words and interactions with students!
Yes, we are “often weary with well doing.” (From a positive Biblical admonition, stated negatively). We as educators may be guilty of adopting a lapsodasical mode and emulate the first professor X instead of emulating the second professor’s investment in your future!
I stop and reflect, “Where would I be if others had not invested in me along the way, academically, financially, inspiring and motivating me to become a better student and person?” Wow! So thought-provoking and scary! Not necessarily new information, but a reminder of the challenge we FACE and need to have on the forefront of our agenda each day!

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Curtis Hardy March 9, 2017

This is at the core of being an effective educator. It’s so easy to forget the basics of why we are here and what is most important. I reflect on previous interactions this semester with students where they had struggles and concerns and I verbally acknowledged them, however the true and lasting impact is in assisting them. Such a humbling reminder. Much needed. Thank you.

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Julia Turner March 9, 2017

Thank you for your autobiographic narrative. Reading it, I recalled a senior in the 12th-grade Honors English class that I inherited when a teacher resigned mid-semester. On the first writing assignment, this girl received her first-ever C (her words) on her first composition with me.

“I have always been a good writer; I always get As on my writing,” she lamented with tears in her voice.

In short, resulting from our conference and going through the paper, she understood that her expression and organization were very good; but her conventions and syntax needed work, both which she had been “taught” but which she had not been held accountable for applying. Within weeks, including several various writing tasks requiring application of learning, she returned not only thanking me for showing her how to improve her writing so that all aspects of her composition were better, but also thanking me for “caring enough to call me on it.” At the end of the semester, she did earn her accustomed A, but this A carried a greater value for her. She said, “I earned this A.”

I could relate similar narratives from throughout career: the names would change; the class would change; the abilities would change; but the outcome – student learning – would not.

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Gina Czarnecki October 7, 2018

Thank you for sharing this story! It makes me reflect on my own teaching practices and reactions to my own students. I am an elementary teacher and I am reminded of how, when I was in elementary, I hung on every word my teachers said. I only pray that I have never said anything so negative to any of my students, and pray even harder that if I did, they have forgiven me! We know, as educators, that our days can be frustrating and overwhelming but we also know that our students need us to believe in them (especially when they make mistakes), as your second professor did for you.

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