Thursday, October 16, 2014

The 8th Friday: Expecting the Best!

"A teacher’s beliefs about students’ chances of success in school influence the teacher’s actions with students, which in turn influence students’ achievement. If the teacher believes students can succeed, she tends to behave in ways that help them succeed. If the teacher believes that students cannot succeed, she unwittingly tends to behave in ways that subvert student success or at least do not facilitate student success. This is perhaps one of the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching because it is typically a subconscious activity."

When I was coaching high school basketball, we adorned our locker room walls with what we hoped were motivational quotes and messages. One example was the statement: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”  In other words, our expectations determine our level of success. In terms of basketball, if we did not think we could beat our opponent, we could chalk the game up as a loss even before the opening tip-off. Analogies can be made to teaching our students. Obviously, our expectations must be attainable. For example, although I run regularly and have completed several marathons, expecting to win the Boston

Marathon is not an attainable goal for this slow-moving geezer. I can, however, set expectations for myself that I will run several miles every other day and complete any race I enter, and improve my time from race to race. Similarly, not every student can be class valedictorian and not every student will have a spotless discipline record, but expecting students to behave according to a clearly defined student code of conduct, expecting all students to learn grade-level-appropriate material, and expecting all teachers at the school to uphold these expectations is not only possible, but necessary, to achieve optimal results.

Teacher expectations can be self-fulfilling. The power of belief one person has in another can become a propelling force for that person to begin believing in himself. Although intellectual ability obviously affects student academic performance, hard work and effort are even more important in determining a student’s level of performance. Most educators would agree that their own success was a result of hard work and effort. As educators, we must continue to communicate this message to students, expecting them to achieve at high levels as a result of their work and effort, rather than any innate ability.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time talking with me about education knows that my core charge to educators is simply this: we must clearly establish high expectations for students and then set about building relationships with them such that they will want to meet our expectations. Although this is a mere hunch based on many years of teaching experience, as opposed to any exhaustive research I have conducted on the topic, I suspect that nothing influences how well our students perform in terms of academics and behavior as much as the expectations we hold for them and the firm, fair, and consistent manner in which we adhere to them. Probably the most famous study in the area of teacher expectations for students is Rosenthal and Jacobson’s Pygmalionin the Classroom (1968) in which teachers were told at the outset that 20% of their students (randomly selected) were identified as “spurters” whose academic performance would likely grow dramatically during the year. Sure enough, at the end of the year, these 20% significantly out-gained the 80% who were not
identified as “spurters” 
on an academic achievement test.

Marzano (2007) discusses two categories of teacher behaviors that communicate expectations to students:  affective tone and quality of interactions with students. Affective tone means the extent to which teachers establish positive emotions in classrooms. In looking at quality of interactions, research shows that teachers differ in their interactions with high- versus low-expectancy students. To avoid differential treatment in terms of affective tone, Marzano suggests examining whether we treat “low-expectancy” students differently by:

  • Making less eye contact
  • Smiling less
  • Making less physical contact or maintaining less proximity
  • Engaging in less playful or light dialogue.
Relative to quality of interactions, he suggests examining whether we treat low-expectancy students differently by:

  • Calling on them less
  • Asking them less-challenging questions
  • Not delving into their answers as deeply
  • Rewarding them for less-rigorous responses
In reflecting on my own teaching career, I fear that I may have been guilty of several of the above differences in treatment of students for whom I held lower expectations. My intentions were not malicious; rather I thought I was doing “struggling” students a favor by letting them off the hook at times. Of course, as Marzano suggests, this thinking -- although well-intentioned, perhaps -- was folly. We must work to communicate high expectations for all students.

Blackburn (2007) also addresses expectations and suggests there are three ways to incorporate high expectations in your classroom:  (a ) through your words; (b ) through your actions; and (c ) through your expectations of one another in the classroom. The language we use with students clearly reflects our beliefs. Students will follow our model when they hear us using excuses or saying we can’t do something. Even more important, our actions must show that we expect all students to learn. By calling on all students and making all students demonstrate their understanding of the content, we are communicating our expectations through our actions. Finally, we must cultivate a classroom culture whereby students expect each other to learn, participate, and behave properly. Through our modeling, students can learn to reinforce positive learning and behavioral actions for each other.

Some students at our schools have absolutely no vision of anything other than where they are right now. We can help our kids create a different vision for themselves through our words (including affective tone) and actions (including quality of interactions). Understanding that our expectations for students influence outcomes and acting accordingly is another way we commit to Teaching with Passion! each day.



Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the eighth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when they are determined using poorly defined performance standards, such as letter-number relationships that have traditionally masqueraded as performance standards. The fix is to develop clear, criterion-referenced descriptions of a limited number of levels of achievement. Whatever symbols are used to summarize student achievement (e.g., A, B, C, D, F or 4, 3, 2, 1), each level must be described clearly with the level of proficiency precisely identified.


  1. Jeff,

    This is can be a sensitive topic. On the surface it appears obvious, "Expect the Best!" Yet if we are honest we realize not every educator will connect with every student. Not every teacher will even "like" his/her students equally. That is simply human nature. We develop assumptions based on experiences & interactions.

    I believe you are accurate in your statements about expectations, "hard work and effort are even more important in determining a student’s level of performance. Most educators would agree that their own success was a result of hard work and effort."

    Hard work and effort have a higher likelyhood to occur when students feel as though their teacher cares about them and likes them.

    Nice topic...very relevant for all educators.


    1. Ben,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. You point out something equally sensitive--but true: we are humans and we will find ourselves liking some students more than others. The trick--and the art of teaching--is to make sure that no student picks up on this and that each student believes s/he believes the teacher likes him/her as much as any other child in the class and cares about his/her success. Thanks again,