The high expectations myth is a pernicious, insidious mantra. It is the notion that if I, as a teacher, say and believe I hold high expectations, it is magically true. Examining actual teaching practices is neither necessary nor worthwhile. I have better things to do. Change or growth or flexibility aren’t needed. It is the educational equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.”
The high expectations myth is the educational equivalent of thoughts and prayers. Click To Tweet
Many teachers do genuinely hold students to a high standard and rightly demand their colleagues do the same. This article is not meant to denigrate those teachers. It is a call for reflection and a focus on intentionally aligning behavior and belief. Because “high expectations” has become a catchphrase of limited value. Instead of being an honest assessment of practice, or a worthy goal, it is too often an excuse.
We have all have heard teachers forcefully declare that teachers have to have high expectations (like they hold is the unspoken, or spoken, implication). These same teachers put down students in the lounge, use the same teaching practices they have unquestioningly implemented for decades, or insist students come to them suffering from an extreme case of learned helplessness. Many never realize the contradiction. Most teachers genuinely care about students and want to be successful educators.
In what other profession would anyone presume that belief alone dictates performance. Believing I can perform surgery like a professional while never examining how I actually wield a scalpel seems pretty silly. It takes intentional practice, constructive criticism, and close examination of physical and mental actions to perform well and improve.
The subconscious goal of the high expectations myth is self-protective. If I have high expectations my students fail to meet, it must be because of students, or parents, or school culture, or community, or curriculum, or resource limitations etc. etc. ad infinitum. I can safely blame outside forces and avoid the hard and sometimes painful work of looking at my culpability. Avoiding the realization that I might need to change, that I might engage in behaviors that reveal the limited expectations I don’t know or want to acknowledge I hold, is powerful motivation to stand behind those empty words.
Moreover, if I believe I hold high expectations for students, there is no need to find out if I harbor any subconscious bias. The messy, difficult process of determining where and why I am making assumptions that might not align with my stated beliefs can also be avoided.
Imagine a teacher in front of a diverse group of 2nd, or 4th, or 7th, or 9th, grade students. The class is being introduced to a group activity. The teacher explains the activity. She then hands out directions. Immediately, some students begin reading the directions or conferring quietly with group members. When she has given everyone a copy of the directions, she interrupts the students and demands their complete attention. She then proceeds to read the directions out loud. Slowly. Without additional explanation. Once finished, she asks for questions and without wait time instructs students to begin working.
She has undermined her students without realizing it. Why read the directions to the class? The answer is typically to ensure all students understand the directions. So then, why hand out copies of the directions? Obviously, I am usually told, because students need to learn to read directions. This is my “Wait, what?” moment. Instead of expecting students to listen, directions are provided on paper. And instead of expecting students to read, directions are read out loud.
The assumption is that doing both will capture the largest number of students who understand the directions. The problem is the unspoken message students receive: my teacher doesn’t think I can read the directions myself. Not only that, but my teacher thinks reading the directions to me is more valuable/important/useful than allowing me and my group to figure out what to do. Nor does she believe we need to talk about how to accomplish our task, we should skip thinking about the process together and dive right into the activity.
Without intending to do so, the teacher has dramatically lowered her expectations. Students experience this undermining of their confidence almost constantly. Year after year, the actions of their teachers reinforce the idea, the belief, that student learning is dependent on the teacher. Because it is faster/easier/cleaner, teachers do for students what they could do for themselves with a little effort and support. It might be messy, but it is possible.
There are innumerable “buts.” None of them are as important as the implicit message students are receiving over and over again. Actually having high expectations takes continuous effort. It is asking “What am I doing that students can do themselves?” In the scenario above, it is choosing to read the directions while students take notes and then using a random selection of students to repeat each step. Or giving students written directions to read with their group before having each group explain a step of the process to the class. It is reflecting on how my choices reinforce or fail to reinforce what I believe. To truly hold high expectations I have to examine my beliefs as well as my practices. I have to be willing to allow others to challenge my thinking and I have to be willing to challenge myself. It isn’t easy and the process never ends.
Teachers talk a lot about how students have changed. They aren’t motivated, they don’t listen, they don’t believe in themselves, they can’t handle open-ended assignments, they aren’t independent, they can’t think critically, etc. etc. ad naseum. We also talk a lot about how parents and society and administration are to blame. Teachers are just as much to blame. The school system is filled with well-meaning adults who claim “high expectations” while enacting unexamined practices that reinforce the very behaviors about which they complain.
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This is the high expectations myth. It is the status quo incarnate. Students deserve better. So just as politicians who send thoughts and prayers are being challenged to enact meaningful change, teachers who say they hold high expectations need to be challenged to continuously examine their practice and ensure instructional choices reflect the belief in our students.
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