On Expectations of Excellence
How this helps ALL students learn and grow
People write a lot about the experiences Black students have in schools where the majority of students and teachers don’t look like them. While many can and do succeed, it can be in spite of the circumstances rather than because of them.
As we know, Black students are more likely to be perceived as aggressive or troublemakers, more likely to be excluded for minor infractions, less likely to be seen as capable. And while we all know of students for whom that wasn’t the case, we also know far too many for whom it was.
I can’t help comparing that with my own experience at school in Black majority countries. I’ve talked about some of the negatives of entrenched anti-Black racism, but now I want to talk about the positives of an expectation of Black excellence.
I remember going into Standard 5 in Trinidad. That was the year children took the 11+ exam that determined which secondary school we could get into. The student body was primarily Black and brown, as was our teacher, Mrs. Alleyne. The classroom was crowded, with 50 of us squeezed into a space meant for 30.
None of that mattered.
What does matter is what she said on day 1: I still remember her words. “No one in my class has ever failed the 11+ and you will not be the first.” Sure, it was kind of terrifying, but it also contained a promise that if we worked hard with this teacher, we’d succeed. That expectation of success is very important.
It’s an expectation that followed me to secondary school, first in Trinidad and then in Barbados, where most (but by no means all) of the teachers were Black.
Looking back over old school reports, it’s clear that I struggled a bit when we moved countries and had some stuff going on at home. But I don’t remember the struggle. What I remember is that, with a couple of exceptions like one of my English teachers, the staff expected us to work hard and do well. The underlying assumption was that if we did, there was nothing we couldn’t achieve.
I know that in some ways this is a simplistic view, and that some people didn’t thrive in the rigid school system that was our colonial heritage. But I still believe that the expectation of Black excellence does more to encourage that excellence than the assumption of failure.
It’s one reason why I believe that global majority students need to see their (our) own history and culture reflected in their education, especially when they’re being educated in global minority schools. They need to have at least some teachers who look like them and can relate to their experiences, who can encourage them to succeed. Some do, I know, but that needs to be the standard.
And it will help global minority students, too, by removing the presupposition that Black and brown people are “other”, lesser beings. There’s still not enough acknowledgement of and learning about Black people’s contribution to world history, societies and cultures - and I believe that knowledge, as part of an equitable education system, is an important tool in dismantling white supremacy.
What do you think?
P.S. If you’re looking for a starting point to learn more about the contribution of Black people to our society, check out Liz Leiba’s Black History and Culture Academy.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.