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Carefully sliding the bar of success





by Chris Low

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It had been a while since I had seen such an unusual reaction to failing a test. Adam, one of my 5th-grade students, had fashioned his two-page score report into makeshift ice skates. Sliding around the back of the room, he declared, “I don’t care about this stupid test! I don’t care! This test was stupid!” It’s an unorthodox strategy for analyzing the data, wearing your report on your shoes.

In my role as a learning support teacher at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, I had pulled students with learning disabilities into a smaller, more accommodating space during interim testing. Adam was one of those students, and I had worked closely with him during the week leading up to testing. I felt invested in his success. So I was hit with a mix of shock and disappointment to see him behave this way.

On a couch in the back of the classroom, Adam and I sat down to cool off and talk through the numbers. When he was ready to listen, I told him something that clearly surprised him. I pointed to Adam’s first interim score, which was a 53, then I pointed to his new score, which was a 68. I told Adam that I didn’t think he had failed at all.

There is a delicate balance at play in many Philadelphia schools. At the heart of the issue is the idea of expectations. How can teachers keep the bar high without giving in to the constant disillusionment of failed endeavors and unrealized goals? This past summer, during my training as a teaching fellow, my eyes were opened to the limitless potential of students unhindered by the boundaries of low expectations. For many Philadelphia students, the biggest barrier to success lies in the belief that great accomplishments are beyond their grasp. The goal of the teacher is to be a figure that pushes students past the limits of what they think they can do.

But it’s never that simple.

I found early in my first year of teaching in Philadelphia that maintaining high expectations carries a price. I was disappointed all the time. I was disappointed in my kids for not trying harder, and I was disappointed in myself for not being a better teacher. I hesitated to celebrate success with my students, because their success never measured up to the standard we were trying to reach.

That’s where the balancing act begins. That’s where the bar needs to slide.

When kids feel successful, they try harder. Like when I learned how to ride a bike. The bike I learned on happened to be a girl’s bike that was embarrassingly small. I felt ridiculous, but my dad celebrated my small achievement anyway. That feeling of success helped me find the courage to try on something a little more impressive, a bigger bike. My dad had lowered the handlebar, but as soon as I proved myself capable, he quietly slid that bar a little higher, and I was back to reaching again. I’m learning how to do that for my students.

During my conversation with Adam, his face had lit up a bit. I explained that an increase of 15 points in just six weeks was impressive. We did some quick math and figured that he would have a B on the next interim if he kept increasing his score by the same interval. It was a sweet moment, and I think it was just what Adam needed to hear in order to press on.

“Will you call my mom and tell her?” Adam asked. “She’s not going to believe me that this is good.”

Adam was right. Keeping the balance between celebrating small achievements and maintaining high expectations is a tricky business. I said I would be happy to call if he agreed to look at his scores with me to see where he could improve. He peeled the test off the soles of his shoes, and we got started.

Chris Low teaches learning support at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School and is a 2012 Philadelphia Teaching Fellow. 

The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to


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