Saturday, August 4, 2012

I’m the Taxman

“Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman”

- The Beatles

When I was in 3rd grade, I took one of those “what are you likely to be when you grow up” assessments, with some interesting results.  According to this assessment, I was to become an IRS agent.  Every time I mention that in a talk, I get some big laughs from the audience.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with being an IRS Agent.  I am sure it is a fine and honorable profession but if you know me even just a little bit, you would know why there was something seriously wrong with that assessment.  I am clearly not IRS Agent material and members of my team will tell you that I can barely figure out the tip.

However, that’s not the point of the story.  What happened after I got the results is what makes this story interesting.  My teacher looked at me in the eyes and said, “oh honey, you probably aren’t going to be an IRS Agent but don’t worry, I am sure you will work hard and get a good job.” 

Without knowing it at the time, I had just become a victim of a horrific affliction -  Low Expectation Syndrome.  Looking back at my life, I can point to very specific examples of Low Expectations Syndrome.  The problem with low expectations is that you don’t know you are a victim of it for a long time and I would argue many people never realize it.  These low expectations have dire consequences on students, especially students growing up in disadvantaged environments.  Low expectations give you permission to not work hard, to be lazy, to tell yourself that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing.  It is truly a life altering decease.

Luckily for me, my 4th grade teacher had the antidote and treated the Syndrome with a new set of expectations and kicked my ass.  She was the first real great teacher I had.  I handed in work and she handed it back with,  “I stopped reading after the first paragraph.  I know you can do better than this.  Work harder.  Do better,” written across the top. She taught me to never say, “I don’t know how to do X.”  She corrected me every time and told me to say, “It’s not that I don’t know how to do X, I just haven’t learned how to do it yet.”  I feared her, not because she was scary or mean.  I feared her because I came to believe she knew me better than I knew myself!  Now I realize that she didn’t need to know me.  She understood the power of expectations and the human potential to do amazing things, no matter what your circumstances. 

It’s tough enough dealing with society’s low expectations, especially if you are a poor Black or Latino kid.  I remember trying to stay out of the sun when I was younger.  I didn’t want to be any darker than I already was.  No one on TV looked like me and I wanted to fit in.  One summer I put Sun-in in my hair.  A commercial told me that I could highlight my blonde hair.  I spent the summer with burnt  red hair, looking like Dennis Rodman.

In school, no one talked about college or more importantly, careers.  I would tell my principal that I was going to go to medical school to be a doctor and he would just pat me on my head and say, “sure kid.”  We were just marred in a sea of low expectations. 

The problem with Low Expectation Syndrome is that it is a deadly silent killer.  It impacts you without you recognizing it.  When I was in college, I wanted to continue my education and go to graduate school to study public policy.  My favorite political science professor suggested that I apply to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  I thought he was insane and said, “kids like me don’t go to Harvard, I’d get eaten alive there!”  He couldn’t talk me into it.  I was convinced I wasn’t good enough to get in, let alone do well there.  Never mind that I took four of his classes and he knew me well, or that I taught Intro to Political Science over the summer, as a senior.  Of course now I look back and I know that not only could I have gone to Harvard, I would have kicked it’s ass!  But at the time, I didn’t know I was suffering from Low Expectation Syndrome.  It took graduate school, working for the Governor of New York, and years working at Accenture before I truly got the syndrome out of my system.

I read an article where a University of Minnesota professor (Sherri Turner) and a postdoctoral fellow (Julia Conkel Ziebell) did an interesting study on the career beliefs of 97 inner-city adolescents.  Students were asked to rate how much they believed career focused statements and the results are telling.

The most interesting one was, “success is related to effort.”  If you think about that statement for a second, what do you think your own kids would say?  Would they agree?  I know my kids would.  As a competitive swimmer, my daughter got up at 4:30AM several times a week for years to practice before school.  She worked her ass off and graduate high school on a team that lost one swim meet in 30 years and she finished as the second fasted breaststroker in Arizona (we do swimming well in AZ).

Well in this study, only 24% of students believed that that statement to be true.   70% of them completely disagreed with it.  The authors say turning around these negative beliefs should be a major emphasis among school administrators.

No kidding.  This is an important topic that isn’t addressed much.  I will be posting much more on this subject in the future. 


  1. In my middle school in Southwest Yonkers we had a teacher who would regularly say, "you've got a ghetto mentality." I believe it was people betting against me that spurred me to rise up. Much different for my suburban children, though I make sure they know their father's roots.

  2. Another example of setting expectation in school is using the time to learn how to manage teachers expectations. Teachers are great to practice on. They come in many varieties. Much like bosses, and coworkers later in life. Not all teachers are helpful and benevolent. Some are assholes that just want to skate by doing the minimum. Learning to recognize different teaching styles, and managing their expectations is a good skill to hone.

    Practicing negotiating skills by discussing vague instructions until they are defined and achievable. Those types of problems come up later in life in the work environment.

    Learning how to nail down expectations helps students concentrate on producing results that contribute towards the grades. Later in life one can trade grades for money.