Why is it so important to believe in our children’s ability to be their best selves, to do their best work? Expectations are important, but they are also tricky.
“Boys will be boys,” is a phrase that particularly irritates me, as if it’s okay to just ignore or even embrace certain misbehavior because of stereotypes.
Dismissive language allows educators to shake their heads knowingly and say, “Yes, there it is, exactly what we expected.” Research shows that the expectations set by teachers for individual students can greatly influence student progress and achievement (Progress of Education Reform). This is a social justice issue.
When we decide that someone can’t do something difficult (solve a math problem, speak politely, write compellingly) we are placing artificial limits on their progress, particularly when we communicate these limitations to them. Conversely, when we believe students are all innately capable of progress and growth, and don’t label them with restrictive expectations, we get a better result and a different kind of satisfaction, particularly when we are there to support them in the process.
My middle school students perform a Shakespeare play every year. People are often surprised that children are capable of understanding Shakespearean language, memorizing challenging lines, and producing a two hour production. Not only do my students perform a different play each year, the 6th-8th grade actors (anyone willing to try out) cross the ability spectrum. Students from diverse backgrounds and abilities, all collaborate to create our play.
There are those who are intimidated by the Common Core State Standards, suggesting they are too challenging for average kids.
As a teacher who has been working for over 20 years to help students exceed expectations, I appreciate the real world, applicable nature of the Common Core. Students who meet these expectations are ready for higher education and their choice of a broad range of careers. The Common Core is diverse in scope and by its very organization provides many opportunities for students to demonstrate progress through the grade levels.
For example, for the standard, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.1, students must be able to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Students can do this with a variety of literary texts, from Shakespearean prose to Shel Silverstein’s poems.
I read an article recently in Psychology Today, and it’s got me revising how I communicate my expectations. In the past, I would tell my students, “Great job on that last test! Almost everyone got 90% or above. You are so brilliant!” I hadn’t really considered the unspoken message to the three students who didn’t achieve that high mark. They could be hearing, “Except you. You aren’t smart because your score was in the 80’s range.” The rigorous standards I want my students to achieve are not a measure of their worth. Students hear from us, in spoken and unspoken ways, that the outcome either says you are intelligent or you aren’t. Sometime they compare their grades with peers and decide that they will never be able to compete with that one top kid, as if learning is a competition. As we write our targets and expectations on our whiteboards and remind students of what we want them to know or be able to do, we must also announce that we believe in their capacity to achieve. If not today, sometime soon they will achieve with the required effort.
Measurements of student progress should be viewed with an eye to where students have been and where they are headed. We must communicate “effort expectations.” These are empowering. They communicate our belief in students that they can achieve. If we want students to feel confident, and in turn, motivated to persevere, we must help them see progress along the way. So, although we communicate our expectations, it must not be the end on which we focus. Instead, the message must be that we are all in this learning process together, on a road with a destination, and as long as we keep moving, we will get where we want to be. It’s not a race. It’s a limo headed to opportunity, and there’s lots of celebrating as we mark our progress along the way.
So, why do we have expectations? Expectations are our vision of what is to come. They provide a focus for positive achievement in every area of our lives.