Know What Happens When You Lower Expectations

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{taken from this year’s volume of The Master Teacher Pd Program}

Study after study shows that teacher expectations have an amazingly strong bearing on student performance. Studies conclude that a teacher’s belief about whether students can perform at high levels plays a role in determining whether they do or not. So it should come as no surprise that if we don’t believe some students can perform at high levels, they won’t. Capable students will confirm our doubts. But the damage won’t stop there: Our professional integrity can be compromised as well.


Lowering expectations
stems from our
own expectations of failure.


When we lower our expectations for students, a close look will reveal it’s often because we’re having doubts about being able to get through to them. We can hear ourselves saying, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.” Then it becomes easy to start blaming: “The student is unmotivated and lazy” or “This student will never be any better than his sister was.”

It’s true, we may have tried what seems like everything, including techniques we have used with success in the past. But our techniques simply aren’t working now with this student. Casting blame and lowering expectations is not going to help. In fact, as our expectations of students begin to fall, so do the high expectations we hold of ourselves. In a sense, we take ourselves off the hook for doing the hard work of finding strategies that will be successful. We fail to face the reality that our expectations determine the strategies, energy, persistence, and resources we’re willing to employ to reach our students.

There are other negative by-products of lowering expectations as well. Our belief in our abilities is vital to our success. Our students’ belief in their abilities is equally vital to their success. When we display our belief in the potential of students, it fortifies their belief in themselves and enhances their chances for success. When students feel our doubts, we cripple their chances. We confirm students’ worst fears about their own potential. Students predictably begin to think, “If my teacher doesn’t believe in me, how can I believe in myself?” In truth, our students are watching, “recording,” and closely analyzing what we say and do. They calculate very quickly whether we are there for them or not.

Make no mistake, our expectations for one student can impact how all students view the expectations we have for each of them. [Tweet this.] Lowering expectations for one group of students may also impact other students by assigning them high grades for content they find easy—without causing them to stretch or take risks. Not expecting enough, including from our high performers, is the same as lowering our expectations for them.


Do these
things to become
more self-aware.


One of the problems is that we may have communicated our low expectations to some students without being conscious that we have lowered them. With these students, we may find ourselves smiling less, making less eye contact, calling on them less, and asking fewer questions. We may not dive deeper into their answers for clearer meaning and insight. We may even ignore some students. To be sure, these slights are extremely damaging. We need to check ourselves with three actions.

First, we can be honest with ourselves and identify those students we expect less from. We need to do this as early as possible. Then we need to list why we think this way as well as what we can do to prove ourselves wrong. We need to be equally honest about any biases that emerge when we look at the similarities in our low-expectation students.

Second, we need to commit ourselves to forming a stronger relationship with these students and to being persistent in our efforts. Not all these students will embrace a relationship right away. But if we realize that this is the only way we will be able to learn enough about them to “crack the code” to their achievement, we will not let their rebuffs put us off. In fact, they may just be testing our authenticity and commitment to them.

Third, we need to elect to personalize our approach and our teaching instead of lowering expectations. This will entail raising the bar for ourselves. A student may need to work independently or with us for parts of the class and then engage in group work. He or she may need more scaffolding or need to be freed up to use another approach to get to the same goal. Whatever the solution, we will need to expect more of ourselves to arrive at it.


The Master Teacher knows
once he or she lowers expectations,
it is “game-over.”


The Master Teacher knows that once we lower expectations for students, it’s “game-over”—but not just for students. We must first hold ourselves to high expectations before we can hold students to high expectations. Therefore, when we lower our expectations for students, we have already lowered them for ourselves.

The Master Teacher also knows another important truth: None of us have ever done all we can do before we lower expectations. We may have done all we know to do or all we have the energy to do, but it does not mean we have exhausted all the possibilities. That’s why Master Teachers stay hopeful, maintaining the expectation that they will find the secret to certain students’ achievement—eventually. And they know the only attitude that will preserve their own professional integrity is to persist until they do find it.

To Learn More:
Tomlinson, C. A., & Javius, E. L. (2012, February). Teach up for excellence. All students deserve equitable access to an engaging and rigorous curriculum. Educational Leadership, 69(5), 28-33.

{Get The Master Teacher Pd Program for every teacher in your school next year}

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