She came to me in her junior year—rough and brash and scared. She wasn’t a reader; she wasn’t a writer. She wasn’t a student at all. But somewhere she’d gotten the idea that the only way out of the harsh life she had known was through education. Her family certainly didn’t think school mattered.

Once she had asked her mother how to spell “enormous.”

Her mother answered, “B-I-G. That’s good enough.”

9th and 10th grade General English had been unchallenging, and she didn’t think she was going to get the education she craved in the 11th grade class to which she had been assigned. It promised to be another slow-paced section where no one did the homework and the books were never opened. So she signed herself up for a tougher class in hopes that someone would teach her something. Her mother told her she’d fail, her guidance counselor thought the same, and she herself had no idea how demanding the next level up would be.

She did fail the first test. Tears welled up in her eyes. The reading had been difficult and the essays, impossible.

That test was a crucible. She nearly gave up. But I talked her into sticking it out, and I worked with her. I taught her how to use the footnotes and the sidebars in the text to improve her understanding. I showed her how to figure out the meanings of words from their context and worked with her on writing coherent sentences. She labored over the assignments, and, because of all the effort she was putting forth, I had to resist the temptation to give her higher marks than her performance merited. Her grades remained borderline for some time, but slowly, step-by-step, she gained ground. She learned to read Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. Her scores improved. Gradually, she learned to write an essay.

At the end of the year, she asked if she could keep the textbook.

For her senior year, she chose another difficult English class and continued her steady growth with another teacher who responded to her drive to learn. She went to college on a combination of loans, work-study, and grants, and she became a teacher herself, giving to her students what she says we gave to her: challenge—and the coaching she needed to meet that challenge.

The credit for her accomplishments goes to her, not to me or my colleague. But I know that setting those high expectations—and then helping her to meet them—through after-school tutoring and after-class explanations, through attentive responses to her questions, through suggestions for further reading so she could catch up with her peers—were essential to her success. She had the motivation. She needed teachers who would not limit her rise, but would support her reach for what was possible.

When a track coach trains a high jumper, he lifts the bar in increments, raising it just enough each time to make the jump a challenge—but not so much that he defeats the jumper at the get-go. So it should be in the classroom. Styling ourselves as “impossibly hard” in an effort to challenge our students to grow—or the reverse, settling for “good enough”—are neither one going to help our students reach their potential. Instead, we need to operate like a track coach: Make our students comfortable so they are willing to take a run at the goal, teach the fundamentals, and then gradually increase the level of difficulty. And of course, celebrate when they clear the bar!

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