High Expectations: What to Look For

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Written by Richard Frank 

As I work with schools across the country, I often hear educators talking about high expectations and rigor. These are buzzwords that everyone agrees are an important part of education. However, as I participate in walkthroughs with principals and debrief what we are seeing, I’m finding that school leaders often struggle to know what to actually look for. They can identify a rigorous text and determine whether expectations around scholar product are “high” or “low,” but seem to miss opportunities to identify key cultural indicators of the presence or absence of high expectations.

It’s no secret that scholars achieve more when teachers and society hold high expectations for their achievement, and less when less is expected of them (Jussim & Harber, 2005; Rosenthall & Jacobson, 1968; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). This establishes a considerable hurdle for those children who have experienced or been inundated with demeaning, deficit-based messaging that they are somehow unfit, incapable, damaged, or inferior. While we, as educators, have little control over the messaging our scholars are exposed to outside of school, we carry a great responsibility for communicating nothing less than an unwavering belief in the capacity of each and every scholar to reach greatness.

As a veteran educator, I know what’s on my list of high expectations “look fors,” but I wanted to see what other people were saying and seeing. I recently came across a post on Edutopia that perfectly describes my own observations of high-achieving schools and classrooms.


“Too often, I walk into a classroom and know immediately if it’s an honors class, just by how attractive the walls are or how organized the books on the shelves are. Every scholar deserves a clean, organized classroom. Every scholar deserves a structured and engaging learning environment. Every scholar deserves lessons that are well thought-out and delivered every day. Excellence is a habit that is cultivated. When we model this every day, we communicate to scholars that excellence is the expectation.”

When I visit schools, I experience a variety of learning environments. Many have numerous characteristics that clearly communicate high expectations for scholars in and out of the classroom. Yet as I researched, I wasn’t finding much that details a visible culture of high expectations. In resources written by practitioners, I struggled to find something that nailed down these specifics.

Below is a combination of conversations, observations, and readings I’ve pieced together in a list of indicators that school leaders can use to identify their school areas that communicate high expectations, along with tips to guide improvement in each area.

Time Expectations

High expectations can be communicated through how time is used across the school. Scholar learning occurs bell to bell – from greeting at the door through dismissal. The transitions between activities are smooth, with little time wasted. Scholars are rarely seen simply waiting (e.g., upon completing whole-class tasks, scholars begin reading silently and independently immediately), and urgency is communicated through appropriately demanding expectations of task completion.

Tips:

  • Deliver precise directions in a manner that conveys urgency and values efficiency. This is accomplished by first making sure you have the attention of 100% of the scholars, squaring up, and delivering with your strong teacher voice. Make sure to include words of urgency (e.g., quickly, directly, immediately), a challenging but appropriate amount of time to complete, and what to do upon completion of the task.
  • Consider ways to incentivize urgency. Explain to scholars why time is of such value and that by saving time they have the opportunity to earn that time back and use it toward something of their choosing.

Participation Expectations

Scholars are both expected and willing to participate in all classroom activities, 100% scholar attention on the speaker is a classroom norm, and they actively listen and routinely share their thoughts, opinions, and responses with peers. In these classrooms, risk-taking is noticeable because the teacher has created a safe environment and built trusting relationships with and among scholars. Across the school, attendance is high, tardies are low, and systems are in place to sustain and improve time in class.

Tips:

  • Establish the purpose of tracking the speaker and practice doing it. Use precise directions and positive narration during class to ensure 100% of the scholars have eyes and ears on the speaker.
  • Utilize strategies such as Cold Call, Wait Time, and No Opt Out to set an expectation for active listening and class discussions. Ensure scholars use sentence stems such as “I disagree because” or “I would like to add on.” Teach scholars nonverbal signals, such as the sign for “I agree,” so that they can respond non-disruptively and appropriately to peers during discussions.

Accountability Expectations

Staff holds both scholars and themselves accountable for ensuring that 100% of the scholars are following 100% of the directions, 100% of the time (including both behavioral and academic expectations). This is supported with consistent use of Accountability Hierarchies and Classwide Incentive Systems in class and in common areas. Teachers give feedback and support to each other when these expectations are not met. Teachers consistently follow through with consequences, using a value-neutral voice, and when needed, they consistently engage in Stay in the Game and Restorative Conversations with scholars.
Tips:

  • Ensure that Accountability Hierarchies are taught, posted, and understood by scholars. Set aside class time to teach this to scholars so that everyone is clear.
  • Determine a system for tracking scholar behaviors (e.g., clipboard) that all teachers use.
  • Provide outlines and/or scripts for Stay in the Game and Restorative Conversations; model those conversations for teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to practice with each other. Ensure that both Stay in the Game and Restorative Conversations are included as predictable steps in every Accountability Hierarchy.

Cognitive Lift/Productive Struggle Expectations

Scholars are able to articulate what they are learning and why. They are doing the bulk of the work and the talking during class time. Technology is used by scholars throughout the building to produce as well as consume. Content, language, and expectations for interactions and scholar product clearly stretch each individual scholar. Teachers and scholars can identify why and how they know this stretch exists (e.g., assessment data, previous feedback, etc.).

Tips:

  • Ask scholars the following three questions and ensure they can answer:
  • What are you learning?
  • Why are you learning it?
  • How will you know that you have learned it?
  • Provide teacher training and coaching in the No-Nonsense Nurturer model

Verbal and Nonverbal Messaging Expectations

It’s essential that the staff communicates their expectation and belief that every scholar can, will, and must achieve. Positive messages, character traits, and/or core values are communicated in culturally relevant ways in every area of the building. Rigorous academic and behavioral expectations are clearly, confidently, and consistently communicated. Excellent work is authentically and regularly acknowledged, celebrated, and shared as models of excellence.

Tips:

  • Communicate belief in scholar capability through “yet” vs. “can’t” messaging in class discussions, activities, and visuals.
  • Provide scholars with specific feedback and next steps in their learning journeys (not simply “great job”).
  • Acknowledge scholars who are meeting expectations (through positive narration) and reserve classwide incentives and praise for those times when scholars are exceeding expectations.
  • Raise the bar once scholars have met expectations. For example, if all scholars have met the reading log goal for the month, raise it the following month!
  • Display images, quotes, and texts in the classroom(s) and throughout the building that reflect the cultural background and experience of your scholars and their families.
  • Post quality work and exemplars for reference and routinely update them to display a variety of perspectives and skill levels.

Learning Environment Expectations

Finally, educators know that classroom and school aesthetics can send a message. To communicate a culture of high expectations, teacher, scholar, and common spaces must be clean, neat, text and/or content-rich, and organized. Materials needed by scholars and teachers are well cared for, current, relevant, and readily available as needed.

Tips:

  • Consider making a maintenance list for things you can’t handle on your own. Develop scholar jobs in the classroom for materials and shared spaces that need frequent light organization or cleaning.
  • As a school leader, hold weekly aesthetic walkthroughs with your operations manager or custodial lead to address schoolwide maintenance and cleanliness issues. Add a simple checklist to your classroom or grade-level walkthroughs where you periodically check for class organization and must-haves (e.g., class library has an appropriate number of books).
  • Set aside time on PD or in-service days to tackle classroom aesthetics.

Establishing high expectations along with implementing strong systems and routines are only half of the equation for success. No-Nonsense Nurturers understand that rigor without relationships is doomed to fail. Developing a climate and culture of achievement for all is dependent upon the connection between high expectations and building authentic, trusting, life-altering relationships with scholars.

There are ways school leaders can launch this conversation with teachers and build their own list of “look fors.” Begin by asking teachers how they send messages to the scholars that they’re dedicated and committed to their success (e.g., “How are you communicating to each and every scholar that you believe they are capable of greatness and expect nothing less than their best?”). Look for opportunities to shout-out those teachers who are doing this in demonstrable ways. Over time, convert these teacher-generated ideas into a checklist for walkthroughs, to celebrate and incentivize teachers and hold them accountable to messaging in these ways.


Richard Frank, Ed.D. is a transformational leader with extensive experience driving innovative programs to improve teacher practice and school design in urban settings. During his 20-year career with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and his work with CT3, he has supported instructional leaders in 100+ schools to develop, deliver, and sustain professional learning opportunities for teachers implementing transformational classroom practices. He also launched and managed Nashville’s new teacher induction and mentoring program.

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