The Power of High Expectations for Black Students

When I was a kid, I had an unfailing passion for competition. It started around the age of 6 or 7 in my three-bedroom bungalow in Scarborough with my brother. On weekend mornings, I would hear him rustling out of a night’s long sleep and regardless of how tired I still was, I would hop out of bed, throw on a t-shirt and shorts, and bounce to the living room. I would not only claim our favorite spot on the couch but I would be in control of the television program. Sorry Daniel, no cartoon this morning, Sports Center for about two hours straight. And I don’t care that we are watching the same highlights over and over.


My feisty competitiveness blossomed into a love for athletics. I played for every sports team my school offered and felt more gratitude being known as the fastest kid in the class rather than the smartest. As I became obsessed with sports, my teachers gently pushed me more and more into the realm of athletics. They always had something positive to say about my demonstration of skills during a game and were quick to remind me of their expectations of me on the playing field whenever I let them down.


And I tried to never let them down. On the sports field that is.


In the classroom, it was somewhat of a different story. If I did well on something, I was splashed with words that soaked more of surprise than they did of expectation. I didn’t know what the word anomaly meant back in high school but I know that I subconsciously felt like one on occasion after occasion. You actually did really well on this math test, Matthew? I am so proud of you. I heard you talking about your goals of going to university, Matthew. That is amazing. I am glad that you are thinking about that.


Why wouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t I? Is that not what is expected of me?


The power of high expectations for black students, when verbalized, go a long way in terms of how children see themselves. Many scholars have penned literature on the phenomenon within the black community, and especially with black males, of self-fulfilling prophecies. In a nutshell, it explains how so many black students pursue and eventually excel in sports. They do so because they are pushed into sports. And when they are pushed into a sport through positive projections and high expectations, they then work long and hard at mastering the skill set of said sport. And they become good at it. It all looks like one big happy story of perseverance and saviourism done through the good grace of over-looking teachers, who, by the way, tend to all be white.


If we take our one-sided views of what success can look like and mean for black students, and hold high expectations for them, perhaps we will have fewer student-athletes and more students. When we hold high expectations, in whatever form they may come, the sociological phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies usually rings true. When I call my students geniuses three or four times a day, every day, I am not just doing it because that moniker sounds good. I am doing it because if students really believe that their teacher believes that they are smart, then they will spend a few more minutes studying and take a little more time when working on an assignment. And when they do that, they will get better grades. When they get better grades, they will believe that they are actual geniuses and the whole chicken and egg thing cycles through again and again. There is power in fostering a culture of high expectations for your black students. Don’t read this and slip into thinking about discipline and behavior, we can talk about that another day. I am solely talking about academics. Suturing high expectations with academics creates a mindset of the next LeBron James, only outside of the sports grounds.



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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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