Archived Opinion

Students will rise – or fall – to our level of expectations

op gilchristMy weekdays begin at 5 a.m. I have time to drink coffee with my husband, thank him for making my lunch, make myself presentable and read, pray, and meditate. I also clean out the cat’s litter box, which is perhaps as important as anything in preparing me for the harsh truths of my students’ lives. I am three months into my 16th year of teaching public high school.


This essay, the first in a series on various aspects of the classroom, will be from a teacher’s perspective, my perspective, on issues ranging from student testing to teacher pay to what a teacher does to stay in love with her job and what any of these factors might mean to those who matter most: the students.  

This year, I have only seniors, ranging in age from 16 to 20; just as widely ranging are their interests, academic abilities, and facility with language. That facility makes their lives easier in my class: I teach English. Each class, 90 minutes in length, is one in which we get to know one another pretty well.

I teach two mainstream English IV classes and one Advanced Placement Literature class. I also work with a group of sophomore boys for a 25-minute tutoring session/study hall each day. My 26 seats are filled with bodies too large for them, but students are mostly good-natured about it, chafing against the discomfort of hardened polymer and cold metal only when they bump their kneecaps or are sick or exhausted. They are exhausted more than sick, and for many reasons, most preventable. 

The majority of kids hold down full-time jobs, and our Ingles is the largest employer. Students work the late shifts, sometimes arriving home after midnight to face the one non-negotiable assignment I give them every night: to take a single sentence, dissect it, identify its parts, and then manipulate it. I try to be transparent. I tell them the sentence assignment is so they understand the structure of our language, and the reason for that is because humans immediately judge each other in two ways: the first by how we look, and the second by how we communicate. They sometimes ask me why I make them work so hard, and I say, “Because I like you.” They get it. Sometimes they even do the homework.

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Many students get home from their jobs or sports or band and still must finish the assignment or accept the failing grade. I think I balance my requirements with kindness and encouragement and firmness, but I’m not sure it always works. My 51 years have taught me that students will generally do what I expect of them, so real kindness is achieved by my requiring more of them rather than less. In the low-expectations world we’ve created, I like to buck the trend. Our students navigate a daily routine where the one thing they can count on is that no one is counting on them. 

Not in my class.  

(Dawn Gilchrist teaches in Swain County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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