Many years ago while attending a prestigious prep school, I was part of a track team. I considered myself a sprinter then and I don’t recall if a coach gave me that label after observing my performance or if I had volunteered to take on that role. In retrospect, I find this small detail important and perhaps you will understand why.
My memory consists of one track meet in particular. I was to run a race, but don’t remember the distance. It was within the “sprint” category of races, not too short but by no means cross-country. My recollection of the event is quick but sharp like the instant when your car crashes into another vehicle. I was in the lead or in the very least, heading in that direction. The finish line was very near and I could not see anybody around me. A cramp the size of a tortoise attacked my right hip, sat there under its shell. The pain was intense, but subtle. I was confused. On the sidelines, my team cheered me on, calling my name. I was so much wanting to please them. I flashed into their hope, a slice of exuberance and great expectation beckoned me to fight the grip of pain. In me we all had a winner. After all, I was a fast runner, a natural. But the pain grew sharper in a second and like a breath wiped out from underneath a flame, I broke down completely in the middle of the race. I stopped seeing and the crowd stopped cheering. There was silence and there was me. This is the moment that grew into a cloud. This cloud hangs over the countryside, daring and dark but not letting go of one droplet before it’s time. It steadily holds us, foreboding the eminent downpour, ominous and lurking. There was this silence and there was me.
Many years have passed since that day. As an adult, I naturally fell into a routine of speed walking – it requires less endurance and stamina than running, I thought. Ultimately it was a stress-free choice. My sprinter self never thought to take up jogging. Recently, as a result of the many changes that I have begun to embrace, I have started experimenting with the practice of running. At first, my short distances were sufficient but slowly I started considering goals and endurance and challenge. As my short distance increased, I began to consider that I was no longer a sprinter and even more startling was that I found myself contemplating the possibility that I might have never been a sprinter in the first place.
On the day I succeeded in circling the track for the first time, I returned home with a feeling of accomplishment but it was not joy. I felt this gnawing; subtle pain in my side, a tiny thorn that I had imagined had long ago disappeared. Even though I was enthusiastic, I also felt anxiety each morning about approaching the track. I couldn’t give up my exercise and I needed to be consistent so this dread, if you will, became a concern. Should I go back to walking? Finally, each day I would return to the track and I would give myself permission to walk, not run. I would not force myself to go to that place, encounter my failed self, the other me that I needed to keep at a distance if I were ever to succeed at doing anything. Frankly, doing something, anything was the most important thing. Most of the time, I would run, anyway, knowing that at any time I could walk. I would sometimes jog very slowly teasing my failed self who I realized never left my side. I had accepted my limitation. I was not a runner or an athlete after all.
As the days passed, I continued teasing myself and ironically, I began to run more often than walk – but never once did I make a commitment to run the whole track. I believed my success was born out of this mind game and I found it so fascinating that I communicated my experience to my spiritual guide. I explained the challenge, this battle with myself and put my “experiment with truth” into the context of my youth and tried to explain the perspective of the child I was back in prep school. My spiritual guide nodded gently and when I had finished he let out a long sigh. There was silence and there was me. What? What? I wanted to know. He simply replied, “What an extraordinarily high expectation you had set for yourself back then.”
At that moment it must have been a jolt or a teardrop, but the cloud above my memory broke and out poured the heavy rains that had been ominously hanging over my field of dreams for some time now. The innocence and the simplicity of that statement was a sacred offering, a gift that alters the past. It was in that moment a quantum leap occurred. I traveled to twenty years before and hugged that child doubled over in pain and whispered into her ear the words she most needed to hear, the words that reassured her that there was no such thing as failure and to remind her of all the things she was and was not. She was not a sprinter but a runner, because she runs. She was not a finite moment but a living, breathing life process that was always and will always continue changing and evolving and transforming. Alchemy.
What were those expectations of myself and where did they come from? How did it happen that those expectations quickly led to shame? How do we know which memories are paralyzing and how can we free ourselves from them for recovery?
Everyday I return to the track and I now steadily watch my process as the subject of my own experiment and every day I discover something new about my understanding of expectations. What I find is a bit alarming and might appear unorthodox in a time of standards and performance based assessment. However, I cannot deny or refrain from communicating to all who are open to see. There exists the possibility that expectations can have a damaging impact on performance. As an educator, I have always been a strict proponent of high expectations in teaching and learning and have professionally counseled teachers to “raise your expectations” of the students in front of them because I believed that student failure is directly correlated to the teacher’s expectations. This belief is strongly enforced by research and praxis so you must know, my reader that these revelations and explorations of the nature of expectations are both discerning and tenuous.
John Wheeler, the famous physicist suggested that the universe is built like an enormous feedback loop; a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future, but the past as well. The universe is therefore interactive where the consciousness of the observer alters what is observed (Harvey, 2009). Looking at my own personal and professional experience that spans twenty years of time-space, I recognize how my own level of consciousness as observer (and the level of consciousness of my spiritual guide, which in this case is a significant variable that we can not omit) can change the past and ultimately change the outcomes of the present and future. The liberatory effect that resulted from the release of this clogged energy field from my past continues to impact my current performance. I cannot ignore the fact that the “high expectations” that I had adopted had become an inhibitor rather than a motivational factor in my growth. Consequently, the performance based assessment of this critical moment continued to impact performance over time-space until there was an intervention (guide) that helped create a transformational shift in consciousness that completely altered that which was observed.
Expectations are not neutral. Expectations, like standards come from somewhere-- an individual, a group, a society, a norm, etcetera. Our assessment of any performance or action is based on an expectation or standard thereby reinforcing the notion that both expectations and assessments are determined by a third party or force that becomes the filter through which the performance is observed. This determines, if you will, the level of consciousness of the observer, which in turn will alter the results or outcome. As educators, our unconscious acceptance of expectations and a standard of performance do impact what we observe in our students. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, our assessment of the performance however subjective it might be (based on higher or lower levels of consciousness), does impact the performance of the student over the time-space continuum.
This means two things. One, the role of a critical educator must be to transcend judgment when observing his or her students – or engage in impartial observation. And secondly, the role of the critical educator is to understand that a student’s performance cannot be understood within the limitations of linear thought. That is to say that a student’s performance must be seen as a continuum that expands time-space that includes past, present and future. The latter requires that the transcendental educator accept the possibility that his or her impartial observation and conscious assessment of an act or performance contains within itself the power to heal and create a brighter future.
Let me conclude this writing by saying that I am not suggesting that educators should not hold high expectations of their students. That would be fool hearty. What I am suggesting is to consider the possibility that our expectations can have a positive or negative impact on student outcomes. As we begin to assess students, we need to stop and consider the power inherent in this act. Ask yourself: What are my expectations of this individual child? Where did this expectation come from? Is this expectation grounded in knowledge of the child’s learning process? Have I engaged in the practice of impartial observation in order to heighten my awareness of this child’s learning experiences? How will my assessment of the child impact the child’s sense of self? Will it inhibit or motivate? These questions are just some of the ways we can transcend great expectations and truly see the reality in front of us. It is an act of courage in a time when we are forced to stand in judgment of others with little regard to the elasticity and alchemy of knowledge exchange.