by Sarah Pfannenschmidt, Logic School Humanities teacher
While in Dallas at the ACCU conference last summer, I had the privilege of listening to Classical educators Douglas and Nancy Wilson give a session entitled, ‘High Expectations.’ I’m not sure what appealed more: the chance to hear the Wilsons speak or the possibility of defining what ‘high expectations’ means.
There’s something about Christian Classical education that seems to foster high expectations and require their articulation in a set of standards. Here at TCS, we certainly expect a great deal from our students. Anyone who browses through our academic schedule (rigorous!) or read our dress code policy (extensive!) would confirm this. Yet in a world that increasingly trumpets that there is no absolute truth, these expectations-turned-standards are both inspiring and daunting. I confess that as a teacher, I often wonder if my expectations for my students are appropriate. For example, I remember the terror my third graders shot at me when I challenged them to memorize chemistry definitions or parse Latin nouns. Their reactions were sufficient to make me paranoid as a first-year teacher. I couldn’t help asking, “Am I expecting too much of these kids?”
It was, therefore, immensely reassuring to hear the Wilsons explain that high standards are supposed to be “hard for” students to achieve, but not be “hard on” them. What’s the difference? The design of high standards is to train our students to 1) recognize the value of hard work, 2) develop self-respect, and 3) learn to thrive in the obedience that liberates. Consider God’s righteous and perfect law, which is the highest of all standards. His expectation is that we will demonstrate Christ in all we do, whether it be washing dishes or teaching Latin. We are enabled to do so because Christ has already met the standards on our behalf. Truly, this is good news! We are allowed to fail because Christ did not. God’s high standards remain, but now we have Christ in us completing the good work that he started. He is the reason we can and should have higher expectations for others and ourselves.
At TCS, we desire that our students will experience the freedom that Christ gives us to live a life of excellence. How do we motivate and help our students develop a desire to meet our high expectations?
First, a warning: Our students will not be equipped or enabled to meet our high expectations if we do not model them first. Let us not do as the Pharisees, who would “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves [were] not willing to move them with their finger.”
Rather than condemn others to uphold an impossible standard, the Wilsons suggested three ways in which we can promote a culture of high expectations:
1) Show gratitude: be thankful for high expectations! Too often we are not held accountable, and then we are left to fight persistent sins that flourished in consequence. Be grateful that someone cares enough to ask more of us.
2) Choose cheerfulness: demonstrate joy in all things, especially the high standards. After all, the Psalmist declared, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul.” That’s certainly something to be cheerful about!
3) Acknowledge that hard work is hard: It’s okay to admit that our standards are high. After all, they’re high because our expectations are high, and these are high because we care. Our students also need to know that we feel the burn. Sometimes I encourage my students by telling them, “I understand. [This task or concept] is hard for me too, but together we’ll get there.” They’ll respect us more if they know that the challenge is there for us as well.
In the end, be encouraged that having high expectations for your students does not make you (as my niece would say), “big mean meany-heads.” What is does make us is a people, freed by Christ, to give our all in every task. Let us therefore “press on toward the goal” with joy!