When I was a “lower level” student.

How teacher language impacts student achievement.

I have recently come to the realization that, yes indeed, there are some words that actually “trigger” me. I don’t need a time out when I hear them and can recover on my own, but now being back with educators in person certain words definitely stand out as triggers for me. Before I get to those, a story.

Prior to matriculating to junior high, my sixth-grade teacher decided that I was a “lower level” student in English and shouldn’t be able to be in the “advanced” English class. Years earlier, thanks to my parents filling our house with books, I entered kindergarten reading at a third-grade level. For years my English teachers sent me to different classes at reading time because I had already read all of the books in kindergarten, or first, or third grade, and so. In the fifth grade, I tested into and was able to attend my district’s gifted-and-talented program. So, in sixth grade, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable. Instead, I was pretty social in class (okay, very social) and an excellent procrastinator. I believe I could claim I was an “advanced” student of procrastination. Therefore, my sixth-grade teacher labeled me “lower level” and sent me on.

The “lower level” English class—technically the “intermediate” class—was a dramatic and, I would argue, a damaging experience. It would have had tremendous, long-term negative impact on my school career and beyond if it had not gone through a course correction two years later. It didn’t show up as a problem on my report card, as I easily earned the highest grades possible in that class. However, my seventh-grade English teacher, thanks to my being labeled “lower level,” subsequently had much lower expectations for me and all the other “intermediate” kids.

It’s not like I didn’t know what the students in the “advanced” class were doing. They were all my friends! We had been hanging out together for years, and I spent most of my day with them outside of English. They would tell me what they were learning in that class and I would think, “Wow, we’re not doing any of that!” They had the very same teacher I did, just one period earlier.

I remember distinctly when they told me about the phone lessons at lunch one day. One of the skills my “advanced” friends were taught was how to answer the phone—using a classroom set of rotary phones. Maybe they were expected to be…what? Receptionists? Legal assistants? Do CEOs have to answer their own phones? Maybe. I don’t understand why answering the phone was in their curriculum, but I was jealous.

Imagine my joy one day when I walked into my English class, literally as my friends were leaving, and the phones were on the desks! I actually told my English teacher, “Finally! We get to use the phones, too!” Her reply was that they had run over in the previous period, so she asked me to pick them all up and put them away. No phones. No fun learning. Back to being “lower level.”

I was automatically assigned the “intermediate” English class again in the eighth grade, my guess is with no consideration from my current English teacher and no influence by having top grades throughout the year. Luckily, in the eighth grade, I was assigned a more free thinking teacher. She pulled me aside at one point after class and asked me, “Why are you in this class? You definitely shouldn’t be in this class.” I told her the story of my sixth-grade teacher. She tried, but she wasn’t able to change my assignment that year. She did, however, work extra with me and assign me additional work to prepare me to re-enter the “advanced” track in the ninth grade. I am tremendously indebted to this teacher. Her willingness and courage to buck the system probably saved not only my academic career but led to the things I’ve accomplished in my professional career.

It took me several years to get caught up. My friends had actually learned a LOT of different skills in their “advanced” classes that I had never been exposed to. Many of the most notable were related to grammar. It wasn’t until my ninth-grade English teacher pulled me aside, heard the story, and helped me try to catch up to my friends. That work continued throughout high school. Again, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable, it’s that the well-accepted cultural norm of one person deciding I wasn’t “advanced” pigeon-holed me in a place where I wasn’t expected to know some things or develop some skills—skills like using conjunctions and the proper use of the semi-colon.

There’s a coda. Because of a scheduling conflict, in the 10th grade I was put in a “basic” English class. Oh my word! If you thought the expectations for the “intermediate” kids was low, “basic” was like a different planet! I attended one class, immediately went to the principal’s office, and told them I wasn’t leaving until they put me back into an “advanced” English class. They could call my parents. They could assign me detention. I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving until I knew I never had to go back to that class again. Luckily, one English teacher agreed to add one more student to her already full “advanced” English class. She became one of the mentors in my life.

With those experiences in my own education and having the realization that if I had stayed in the “lower level” classes, even the “intermediate” class, my life could have been much different. I might have gotten into college, but not with the scholarships that I received. I wonder if I would’ve believed I could earn a Ph.D.? Maybe I wouldn’t have written the chapters, books, and research studies I’ve published. I certainly wouldn’t be asked to teach teachers! How could someone “lower level” have any credibility with teachers?

That’s why, when I am working with teachers, and one of them says to me, “This real-world technology stuff is fine for my advanced kids, but my lower-level students…” I am triggered!

I’ve heard statements like this so many times in districts across the country. We need to remember that the language we use has consequences. When educators use terms like “advanced” or “lower level” we immediately set up barriers for some students. When we describe a student as “lower level,” we are limiting our expectations for that student. And our students know it! They lower their expectations, as well. They know we don’t believe in them. I knew my teachers had lower expectations for me and so they didn’t even expose me to basic foundational knowledge and skills—like grammar!

We are all “advanced” at some things, and there are some things that all of us have to work harder at. If we want our students to do better, perhaps like getting higher grades or doing well on things like high-stakes assessments, let’s stop limiting them. To do this, all we need to do is stop saying a few words, like “advanced” and “lower level.” Removing these words from our vocabulary can remove limits to our expectations as well as barriers to every student’s potential.

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