Recently, I was asked to serve on a panel of educators to be interviewed by an external team. As we explained the myriad of ways that we strive to meet the needs of our whole children, one interviewer retorted, “But how do you make sure you don’t love them into mediocrity?”
Aghast, I was unable to find the words I needed to respond in that moment, but I found somewords that evening: Love does not reduce children to mediocrity. Pity does. Two powerful general sessions at the recent national ASCD conference in Atlanta, Georgia, helped me dig deeply into this interviewer’s statement and my strong response to it.
A Freedom Writer, Manny Scott’s keynote, “The Power of One,” traced his journey as a student facing great personal challenges to finding his own potential and success. He attributes this journey to the power of individuals who supported him in various ways: the math teacher who stayed after school to help him until he understood, the lunch lady who told him she knew he would be great one day, the English teacher who let him tell his own story and helped him discover the gift of his own voice. These relationships were founded on love—not squishy, sentimental love, but love that demands, expects, and challenges. Love was in an English teacher who did not give up and instead positioned herself as a student of her students. Love was in the differentiated instruction that gave students opportunities to utilize their gifts and find success. Love was in not lowering standards, but in changing methods to get students to rise to the standard. Love was in another person’s belief for Mr. Scott that continued until his own belief in himself could take root. Love was in viewing poverty as a lack of access, not as a lack of money, and taking steps to create access that was previously denied. I think Mr. Scott would argue that love did not trap him in mediocrity, but rather helped him transcend mediocrity.
In the second general session, “Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student,” Pedro Noguera and Alan Blanksteincontinued the conversation that Mr. Scott began. Equity, they suggested, is giving students what they need to be successful, and to do so, we must know our students. Children learn most deeply through these relationships. Furthermore, they echoed Mr. Scott: we do not lower our standards, but we are charged with making them accessible for students. Part of creating accessibility requires teachers to name, frame, and challenge their own implicit biases. Another part of creating accessibility requires teachers to know their kids to know what knowledge they, the teacher, must acquire to meet their students’ needs. They argued for the importance of teachers who exercise not pity, but compassion and empathy—two characteristics that I believe align closely with love. Love is in being willing to grow ourselves so that our students can be their best selves too. Love is in teaching the way that’s not the easiest, but is the best for our students’ learning. Love is in high expectations that we support our students to achieve. Love is admitting that we all hold biases that impact our relationships and our teaching and working to move beyond these biases to create equitable learning spaces for all students. Love is in the relationships we build with students so that we may not only know them, but also know ourselves.
Thanks to these outstanding speakers, I have found the words that escaped me during the interview: No, we will not love our kids into mediocrity. We will love them far beyond mediocrity. Far, far beyond.
Melissa Summer Wells has served children in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six as a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and, most recently, a literacy coach. She received a BA and MA from Furman University and is nearing completion of her PhD coursework in Language and Literacy at the University of South Carolina (USC). Her research interests include critical digital literacies in early childhood settings and bidirectional family learning communities. Wells is a member of the South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and an adjunct instructor at USC-Upstate. Connect with Wells on Twitter @mswells01.