In my academic coaching endeavors, I sometimes think about the old formula: happiness is achievements divided by expectations. This formula suggests at least two possibilities: (a) we can work to strive for greater achievement – thereby increasing our happiness by making the numerator of the fraction greater, or (b) we can lower our expectations and increase our happiness by making the denominator smaller. Without thinking about it too much, students and parents can increase their satisfaction with academic achievement via lowered expectations and often choose to do so.
In my academic coaching and my experiences as a psychotherapist, I often hear students say with considerable satisfaction, “I passed!” When their parents smile and nod with comparable satisfaction, I realize that I have slipped into that dark territory where I have allowed myself to be more concerned about a student’s circumstances than the circumstances concern the student and/or the parents. To the extent that this is a celebration of mediocrity, where did it come from and what are we to do about it?
My colleague, Mark King, once said, “Sometimes we have to shoot an arrow into the wall and then paint a bull’s eye around it.” In our well-intentioned, but misguided attempts to be helpful, we nominalize a large segment of the student body as “disadvantaged” and then paint a bull’s eye around their best shot. This is akin to what former Education Secretary, Bill Bennett, called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
In my opinion, it is necessary for teachers, parents, and academic coaches to hold students to raised expectations and make some of the better things of life contingent on performance. There are worse things than having to repeat one’s senior year of high school and/or spending a summer in summer school while the family is visiting the mountains, the beach, or out-of-town relatives. Perhaps there is nothing MORE important than having just such an experience.
Andrew J. Billups, PsyD