Here in Minneapolis, the word around town is that South High was designed by a guy who had spent his whole career designing prisons. There are thick concrete walls and rumors of windows, though I didn’t ever see one. The cafeteria is ringed by a second-floor hallway, and it’s not hard to imagine tough-looking guards walking, slapping heavy wooden batons against their palms, staring down at the student/prisoners below. By all accounts, South High should be a cold, foreboding place to be, but it is not. Among the noise and energy of a few thousand students, South High is the home of the All Nations program, designed specifically for Native youth across the city. You can tell a lot about a school just by walking around it. You can tell in the faces of the students and the shoulders of the staff. You can tell by the work on the walls and the sounds from in the classrooms, and you can tell pretty quickly that South High is a pretty special place. I was there to see one of those teachers in particular, but the energy coming from every classroom I peeked inside of was palpable. To me, anyway, it felt like a school with a mission. It felt like learning. The teacher I came to visit, Kassie Benjamin, is one of their math teachers. Kassie is truly one of the most impressive and skilled teachers I have ever seen. She’s energetic and inspired in her classroom, unafraid to fill the room with her own laughter at her own dumb math joke, even if she’s the only one laughing. Kassie is a total teaching nerd. When she’s not planning and worrying and working on every little nuance of teaching, she is thinking and reflecting on the big picture of education outside of her room and district. We worked with each other for a year in a school that was struggling mightily to serve its students. She was a middle school math teacher then, and her room was one of the few places in the building that felt consistently successful. Now I was visiting her here, after she had followed a group of students from their fifth- through eighth-grade years in a similar program all the way to South High. One of those students led me through a maze of stairs and hallways to Kassie’s room, talking the whole way (and much of the rest of Kassie’s planning period) about a recent visit to Harvard, where she was planning on applying, as well as the abundance of Starbucks she had enjoyed on her trip.
Kassie Shows Us What Relationships and Expectations Look Like in Action
Being in Kassie’s classroom reminded me of two pieces of advice that teachers are often given:
Set High Expectations
Both pieces of advice are great and wonderful and also very incomplete. Kassie’s room and her success as a teacher show what happens when both are done right. While Kassie sat scrambling with seating charts and smart board slides, she and her student talked about the student’s recent travels, and also about that student’s friends, and her friend’s siblings, and where they moved and how they get to school and when that may change. I watched Kassie make a mental note to check in with that family and student later, and have no doubt that she did. They talked about a powwow Kassie missed the previous weekend in a way that showed Kassie was there more often than not. The relationships Kassie has with her students, whether they’ve grown together over years and years or if they’ve just met, are layered with respect and affection and caring. When students talk, she listens. [pullquote position="left"]When they mess up, she checks them, forgives them, embraces them, moves on. For all her seriousness and all her hard work and all her drive, she is the teacher kids go to for a hug or for someone they know will listen and care. You see, Kassie knows that though relationships can be important, can be life-savingly important for the right kid at the wrong time, those relationships must also be built around high expectations for learning and growth in our students. As teachers, we talk a lot about high expectations, but, like relationships, we rarely define what those expectations really are, how to cultivate them and what to do when they fall apart. Yes, it is sometimes somewhat true that if we set high expectations that students will reach to meet them, but the work behind making that happen is deep.
When Low Expectations Meet Bored Kids, You Get A Death Spiral for Learning
Many years ago, in the building Kassie and I shared for a year, I also saw what happens when expectations spiral downward. Teachers would introduce some project or work or something to their students, work that had often been stripped of any critical or creative thought, work that was often so much about completion than about cognition, because low test scores told district planners and building leaders and classroom teachers that these kids couldn’t do hard work, so they were given stuff to do that was drastically, depressingly, easy. What happens when you give kids easy, boring work? They don’t do a good job on it, because why would they? They don’t try hard and don’t get it done, because who cares, really? They copy off each other and skip any piece of learning they may have gotten from whatever fill-in-the-blank or word-find nonsense they were given. And so the teacher feels the kids have failed because they couldn’t do it, not because they wouldn’t do it, and the teacher pulls their expectations back, and back again and down we spiral. I watched this happen and tried to push against it happening. There were bright spots in the building; a few rooms that gave students room to be brilliant, and Kassie’s was one of them. I remember meeting teachers at the beginning of that year and setting goals with them. Many teachers talked about class control and quiet, about moving a test number from abhorrent to simply awful. Kassie’s goal was to make her students curious and confident as mathematicians. Not as students, as practicioners of mathematics. And look, those other teachers were not all bad teachers, but the culture of that school (not of its students and families) was broken, and had embraced a level of expected failure that few who were leading were interested in shifting. The resigned lack of belief in the young people in that building would be too easy to believe, too easy to excuse, except for that in rooms like Kassie’s, great things were happening. So now, in a building that feels good, surrounded by a staff culture that, by all appearances and evidence, truly believes in the power of their kids, Kassie is doing the good work, the hard work, of building relationships and setting high expectations. Watching her sit in front of her class on a stool with one wobbly leg, sitting next to a wall thin enough that I can hear every word the teacher next door is saying, not of moment of it looks easy, but it’s all quite beautiful.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."