Supporting Student Success with High Expectations

Feb 29, 2024

I had an English teacher in high school who I thought hated my guts. 

She was hard on me in class and didn’t tolerate an ounce of disrespect. This teacher regularly made me stay after school to go over material I struggled with, and I often left those meetings with twice as much homework as everyone else. God forbid I didn’t maintain the proper tense or misuse a semicolon in my writing. She was tough, unrelenting, and my least-favorite teacher. 

20 years later, I’m a creative writing major with 3 published books and a deep love for reading and writing, and I swear so much of it is owed to this teacher. She saw something in me, and knew it could only grow to its potential if she consistently maintained these high expectations for me. Any talent or aptitude for writing that I had was not enough to be successful without discipline and refinement. 

The Importance of High Expectations

As an 11th grader, I didn't really appreciate this teacher's methods. She was being hard on me not simply because being tough brought her joy (in fact, I'm sure she would have rather gone home early then stayed after school with me), but because having high expectations for students and then supporting them to achieve those expectations, is what leads to success. As Charles Kettering famously said, “High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

Research by the Educational Research and Evaluation draws strong correlations between holding high expectations for students and their academic success. Essentially, lowering the bar is not beneficial for students, and in fact, is damaging to their success.

High Expectations Require Support

However, having high expectations for your students is one thing, and supporting them is another. It's not enough to just maintain high standards for student work and behavior; teachers must provide support to students to help them achieve those standards. Here are a few ways to provide that support:

  • Build Relationships

 Students will be much more likely to rise to the occasion when they know their teachers truly believe in them. I look back to my high school teacher, and while I did not like the extra homework and attention, I think I always knew my teacher did this because she saw my potential. By knowing her intentions, I was willing to do the work. Researchers Yeager and Cohen concluded that students are more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceive their teachers' critical feedback as a genuine desire to help. This is why it's so crucial to form these connections with our students. from planning fun activities, to getting to know your students, to  just greeting them at the door every day, the relationships you build will pay dividends and student work.

Zaretta Hammond calls the ideal educator a “warm demander—one who focuses on building strong relationships with students, then draws on that wellspring of trust to hold students to high standards of deep engagement with course content.” We need to be warm demanders.

  • Be Critical, but Also Praise

Sometimes holding high expectations can come across as anal retentive and overbearing because of the critical feedback. Critical, Constructive feedback is important, but it is less likely to be received if there is no praise and affirmation to go along with it. This is why we should follow the 5-1 Structure:

For every one piece of critical feedback you give to students, try to identify five positives to give as well. Sometimes the ratio is not perfect, but the structure follows the idea by psychologist Rick Hanson that the human mind is like Velcro for negative feedback and Teflon for positive. Students can easily be discouraged and shut down by negativity because of negativity's impact on our brains, which is why it is so important that we give affirmation to help them become more receptive to constructive criticism.  

  • Regularly Talk About Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck said, “When students feel "dumb," the solution is not to tell them they're "smart" but to make them feel as though being "smart" or "dumb" is irrelevant to success.” Real success comes from practice and persistence. One of our roles as educators is to foster a growth mindset in our students, helping them see that progress is possible if they keep working and trying. When you receive that inevitable pushback from students for holding High expectations, remind them that it's because you believe growth is possible. and share with them the research that says if they believe that, they will  be much more likely to grow and succeed. 

High Expectations Might Not Make You Their Favorite Teacher All the Time

Students won’t always love your decisions or understand why you push them more than they want to be pushed. But this is often the mark of a great educator: identifying potential and teaching in such a way for that potential to flourish. This might mean being tougher than you feel like being. It could mean staying with a unit longer than your students want to. and it might mean having a kid with a gift for writing stay after school way more often than he wants to. 

It comes down to having intentions and motivations to help your student succeed. It's okay if that sometimes means not feeling loved by your students. but if they’re anything like me, they will love you for it later on in life. 

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