The Multifaceted Dangers of High Expectations

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As teachers, particularly during the training and NQT years, we are told that expectations, high expectations, are the key to classroom success. According to the Department for Education’s Teachers’ Standards (2011), the very first ‘standard’ states that a teacher must: 

‘Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils; establish a safe and stimulating environment for pupils, rooted in mutual respect; set goals that stretch and challenge pupils of all backgrounds, abilities and dispositions; demonstrate consistently the positive attitudes, values and behaviour which are expected of pupils.’ 

But what does this actually look like in practice? How do you achieve these multifaceted expectations and what are the consequences of these expectations? 

My personal experience with this Standard has been positive. But I do wonder whether my expectations of my classes could change, or whether they could be too high. I wonder if the setting of expectations is dangerous with regard to progress and the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies. At the start of the school year, I lay out my expectations very clearly with all of my classes. They are simple reminders of respect and decorum – a welcome reminder to most students who have spent the last six weeks with next to no routine, who have probably not sat at a desk with a book open in front of them with a pen in their hand! A few lessons in,  and students come into the classroom, following all the steps I expect them to, ready for a nice, calm start to the lesson. Students know that respect is paramount in my classes, they consistently know what to expect in each of their lessons with me. This never changes. The decorum based expectations are relevant and important (in my classroom, anyway) but when does this start to transgress into a negative? 

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‘High expectations’ is really an umbrella term for lots of aspects of teacher life. Not only are there expectations of students to perform well in terms of behaviour and attainment, but also of teachers. There are OFSTED requirements that present themselves all too soon after the previous inspection; pressures of ‘closing the gap’ between ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ pupils, and those with SEND or EAL needs; not to mention our own personal pressures that we face every day. School policies unequivocally carry unintended consequences for both teachers and students. High expectations do not just come from teachers lecturing students at school, but also from parents or siblings at home, social media and the future. Children are massively concerned with doing well at school so they can get a new job, and are so driven to do well that they fall at the smallest hurdle. Not to mention the pressure on students to study subjects (STEM subjects are very popular at the moment) that will get them the ‘good jobs’ – they don’t necessarily have a passion about those subjects, subjects which sometimes offer limited transferable skills. It must be so overwhelming for students today, it is totally understandable that some students switch off and bury their heads in the sand, or lash out due to pressure. 

With 2021 results day looming, I was starting to consider when high expectations become too high; what happens when the negative extensions of high expectations reach the students and take their hold, engulfing them with pressure. While expectations create an avenue for students not to settle for mediocrity, but to motivate themselves and achieve their dreams, there is something about the high pressure environment of the classroom and the effects that this can have on students (which I have seen first hand) that creates conflict within me. 

In recent years we have seen a rise in mental health conditions, in particular the mental health of children. According to the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety and 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression (2018). These numbers are growing, and there is the expectation (another one) that schools do all they can to help with children’s mental health and positive growth mindset – which is totally right. But, realistically, how much help can we offer, when on one hand we are telling students not to worry about exams or results or assessments, and on the other we are doing all we can to help students succeed and are encouraging them (and in a sense, pressuring them) to do the best they can to get the best marks possible?

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As I’m sure those of you reading this will be very aware, teaching is a balancing act, and you will never perfect the art.  The nature of high expectations drags along with it issues of perfectionism, low self-esteem and negative core beliefs. On the other hand, high expectations can create motivation, promote a growth mindset and learner autonomy. The effective management of high expectations, I think, comes down to your delivery. Showing frankness with students about your expectations of behaviour, progress they will make, mistakes they will make, their achievements (no matter how big or small) and the real world has helped me navigate this minefield. It is very easy to get caught up in the school bubble – what really matters is encouraging students to have a realistic, but hopeful, expectation of themselves, whether this be in school or for their futures.

As should we as teachers. 

References

https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html#ref

Bitsko RH, Holbrook JR, Ghandour RM, Blumberg SJ, Visser SN, Perou R, Walkup J. Epidemiology and impact of healthcare provider diagnosed anxiety and depression among US children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online before print April 24, 2018.

Ghandour RM, Sherman LJ, Vladutiu CJ, Ali MM, Lynch SE, Bitsko RH, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence and treatment of depression, anxiety, and conduct problems in U.S. children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 2018. Published online before print  October 12, 2018.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teachers-standards

Published by itspimmsoclock

Secondary school English teacher based in the UK. Writing about the stresses and strains, but also of course joys and highlights of teaching English and TEFL.

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