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Unlocking the Learning Potential

“I like you but I can’t pass you.”

I’ve said something along that line to a number of students over the years and it’s been especially tough for me to say to students I am fond of.

One of the things that I’ve had to deal with over the past five years has been separating my personal feelings for a student from my desire to enforce sanctions fairly and equally. I pride myself on the fact that I treat my best students the same way as I do the not-so-good ones, particularly when it comes to grading.

I find it funny that, despite being a proud left-of-center thinker and a progressive social advocate, I ascribe to a more conservative teaching approach. I seem to be channeling my inner John McWhorter or Bill Cosby every time I’m in the classroom, which puts me at odds with the “systems of oppression” research I do.

Still, I find it necessary to take a conservative approach even if I’m sympathetic to the Paulo Freire pedagogical model. (Freire, a Brazilian educational thinker, theorized that traditional education models fail to adequately develop historically oppressed peoples because such models instill the values that had originally given rise to past oppression of the newly liberated.) I tell my students that they own their success and that they’ve earned every grade they get, whether an A or F.

At a HBCU such as Lincoln, it’s been harder to get these points across. I still have to listen to the occasional, “See what had happened was…” tale, but I make it clear that my expectations change for no one. I believe Lincoln students can compete with students at bigger universities, but in order to do so they need to hold themselves to higher standards.

I haven’t endeared myself to some students (yet), but there are others who have already expressed their gratitude for the way I treat them. Part of this is because many students have been accustomed to learning models where they’re talked down to. The condescension of their teachers and professors leave a significant mark on them, and in some ways, lower their self-expectations.

I’ve joked that I’m not a Michelle Pfeifer(Dangerous Minds)- or Hillary Swank (Freedom Writers)-type character because a.) I’m not a White woman and b.) I think my students will achieve once they unlock their potential.

Even though I’ve only been at Lincoln seven weeks and the keys occasionally jam, the unlocking is underway. It’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.

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