One of my favorite You Tube clips, and one at least 24 million other people have seen, is Paul Pott’s performance of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma on the modern-day talent show Britain’s Got Talent. If you haven’t seen the clip, it is only about three minutes long, and I highly recommend you watch it before reading further in this posting. You can find it here.
What happens in the clip, of course, is that the shy, young man, a cell phone salesman, walks out on the stage in front of the three judges–including the notoriously difficult to please Simon Cowell–and announces he is going to sing opera. It would be hard to imagine a person who looked less like an opera singer, and all three judges look unimpressed. I must admit when I saw the clip the first time, I didn’t expect much from the cell phone salesman in the cheap suit with the bad teeth.
But then he begins to sing. Within a few seconds, it becomes clear that not only does he have a gorgeous voice, but today is one of his shining moments. He sings Puccini with wonderful, infectious, beauty and joy, and the audience revels in his performance. Mr. Potts sings with passion, hits every note, and performs magically. When Paul performs, it feels to me like he is singing for every unknown person who had a dream and wanted to realize it. One of the judges, Amanda Holden, is so moved that she wipes away tears. The audience stands and cheers.
After such a moving performance, Simon speaks for most of us saying, “I wasn’t expecting that!” The truth is that most of us weren’t expecting “that” either.
What I think about when I watch the clip is the power of our expectations. I wonder how often we judge other people the way we judge Paul Potts. How often do we see students, for example, and dismiss them before we even know what their potential might be? How often do our low expectations set things up so that students never get a chance to come close to realizing their potential?
Our expectations embody our beliefs about others. When we hold low expectations, what we are really saying is, “I don’t think you have it in you to do this.” Children are young, but they recognize it when we don’t believe in them. And if we don’t expect much of our students, they often lose faith in themselves. When little is expected, little is what you get.
Low expectations, however, are by no means the exclusive domain of teachers. When policy makers and educational leaders have low expectations for teachers, they, too, shouldn’t be surprised if teachers lose faith. Too much of educational policy and leadership clearly communicate that leaders don’t have high expectations.
When we take six weeks testing students, when we use standards for control rather than learning, when we give teachers scripts and pacing guides to make teaching “teacher-proof,” our actions are no different than a teacher who holds low expectations for students. With teachers, as with students, when little is expected, little is what you get.
The beginning of effective school improvement, I believe, is to believe that teachers hold great potential within them. Effective professional development should unleash that potential, rather than tie teachers to step-by-step spiritual-death procedures.
Standards, pacing guides, even scripts have their place, but they need to be shared professionally, by people who recognize that teachers need to use their own discretion and brain power. Indeed, if we fail to believe in those who teach our children, we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail to believe in the kids. On the other hand, when we have high expectations, we give the professionals in our schools and their students a real opportunity to step up and sing.