Choptensils Short: the Power of Expectation

April 23, 2010

Still crazy busy. Still slapping out half-assed posts to stall for a little bit longer (so many concepts to write on, so little brain-power). So, another unedited, off-the-top, little-analysis one:

So. I’ve noticed something about my language skills here. They’ve improved greatly. I can hold real conversations. In fact, sometimes, I seem to understand almost everything, and can even be charming and/or witty in Chinese (charm, wit, and having a real personality in a foreign language is really difficult, I’ve come to find). I have these days where I feel like I’m getting it.

But, then again. Maybe I’m not. Because there are other times when I don’t understand anything. When I can’t find any words whatsoever. When I feel like I’m just as bad at it all as when I began. Often, those times coincide with my brainpower being drained, being tired, sick, that kind of thing. Sometimes, though, that’s not it.

Sometimes, I’ll be in the middle of a "hot" streak – one of those times when I feel like I’m just rolling with it and speaking the language – when I just get stopped short. I go from 60 to zero in two seconds flat. Today I had one of those moments. And today – I realized what it was.

See – there are some folks here who I interact with on a regular basis who don’t think I understand sh– when it comes to Chinese. They like to say so, too. Somebody else will be talking to me, we’ll be having some sort of conversation, my language will be moving along just fine (thank you), and then one of these "he doesn’t understand" people will wander up and say to my conversation partner – yup, you guessed it – "he doesn’t understand." (*1)

And then – suddenly – I get all flustered. I start stammering, "yeah, I understand," but suddenly – I kind of don’t. I can’t think of the words to explain myself – to prove that I did understand and that I do understand. I stop making eye-contact. I start mumbling my Chinese, stopping in mid-sentence . . . just as if I don’t understand. Just as they said, and expected, and . . .

And nothing. That’s it. It’s just like what so many adults and teachers do to the kids I work with – they batter them with low expectations, and produce exactly what they expect to see – "at-risk" kids who have trouble learning. Expectations really do mean so much – and the low ones are so damaging. You’d think I’d be old enough, confident enough, aware enough to just "not let it get to me." But it doesn’t work like that. All my psychology background. All my pride, my self-belief, my security in my own capabilities – they just aren’t enough to push through. So for kids? They don’t even stand a chance.

The worst part of it is that the people that do this to me aren’t trying to knock me down. Not at all. They actually think they’re helping me out – by telling the other person I don’t understand, they think they’re sparing me from feeling dumb. Or from overly-complicated speech. Or something. They’re not people who dislike me. They’re not mean-spirited. They think they’re helping.

Again – just like these teachers out there who think they do these kids favors by having low expectations. Because they "don’t want these kids to shoot too high and fall short;" as if they’re saving the kids the pain of feeling like they’re failures by telling them that that’s what they are before they try. Treating kids like they’re dumb or unable, so that the kids won’t get frustrated and quit if/when things get too hard. Do you see what kind of ridiculous, faulty logic this is? But it’s so damn common.

So one more time, I will share my teaching secret – the way I got my middle school kids to drastically increase their math abilities. You ready? Here it is: I actually believed that they had math abilities.

Whoa – shocking, right? See – math is a skill that is learned (as opposed to inherited). Therefore, it stands to reason that if a kid hasn’t learned a certain level of math skills, then it’s probably because – for a number of different reasons, not just blaming teachers here – the kid hasn’t really been taught the skills sufficiently. Often, that’s because classes were too full, and they got skipped over. Maybe they were targeted as a "behavior problem" (another neat little expectation trick) and weren’t in class enough. Or maybe, due to family or environmental reasons, they weren’t in class enough.

Whatever the case, they weren’t taught the necessary skills. So does the absence of those skills indicate a lack of intelligence? Hell no. We don’t consider people stupid or less-capable because they aren’t good at basketball. But if they aren’t "good" at math? We write them off.

I know, I know – some of you then argue – but that’s different, because everybody is taught the same amount of math, not everybody is taught to play basketball.

In response, I challenge you – get to know the current school system. Then tell me that everybody is taught the same amount of math. That everybody gets the same opportunities to learn it. Taking the same class – even the same exact class – has little bearing on how much two different individuals are actually taught. Especially the farther down the road you go, when teachers are more and more likely to do kids the "favor" of holding various levels of expectation for them.

Expectations are powerful. Incredibly so. They can take a grown-up, secure (maybe overly so) teacher like me and turn him into an awkward, frustrated middle-schooler all over again. They’re enough to take an insecure middle-schooler and knock the future right out of them. And they’re enough to create class and race and gender (and so many other) distinctions from nothing.

So – for the teachers of the world – next time you encounter a student that you’re thinking "isn’t capable" of learning to a certain level, check yourself. Because what you probably mean is that you aren’t willing to teach them.

As for me? It’s all just more motivation for me to get this language down, so I can have some witty retort next time I get dismissed.

(*1) Should note here that I don’t blame these folks at all for writing off my language skills, considering all these other foreigners that have been here for years and still don’t speak or understand any Chinese.


One comment

  1. This post wasn’t half-assed at all. It is a very good insight and you articulated it well with a concrete and personal example and then extrapolated it to the broad discrimination that your students face by the well intentioned. You do this often and it is one of the thngs I like most about your site.

    I think you hit on one of the few things that I ever heard come out of GWB’s mouth which was when he mentioned the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” not that he did anything about that or put his money where his mouth was.

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