Article

What Do You Expect?

A teacher’s high — or low — expectations can wield a profound influence on students. Here’s how to set the bar high for every child.

By Ann Gazin
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

As your new students take their seats on the first day of school, no doubt some quick impressions will leap to mind: She certainly looks enthusiastic and bright...He's daydreaming already...Her second-grade teacher mentioned that she was a troublemaker; I wonder if she'll act up?
 
As fallible humans, it's natural to make judgments, both positive and negative. A child's socioeconomic status, language ability, past performance, appearance, weight, and numerous other factors can subtly influence our perceptions of that child. What many people don't realize, however, is that the early assumptions we make can often become self-fulfilling prophecies. A student labeled as “gifted” may succeed, while a student branded as a “troublemaker” or as a “low achiever” might fall behind. But what pivotal role do we as teachers play in influencing these outcomes?
 
This question is exactly what researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson sought to answer in 1968 when they began what would become a landmark study in education, “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” At a San Francisco elementary school, Rosenthal and Jacobson told teachers that they were identifying students who were sure to experience tremendous intellectual growth, but in truth, they chose students randomly.
 
Most of you can probably predict the results of this study already. The targeted students performed at a higher level than other students of comparable ability. The study concluded that the teachers' high expectations significantly influenced student performance.
 
It does not take a research study to confirm what most teachers know intuitively: Having high expectations for all students is a worthwhile goal. Furthermore, teachers have tremendous power in determining whether or not this goal is achieved.


Subtle Cues
While the Pygmalion study informs us as to just how powerful teacher expectations can be, it doesn't pinpoint exactly how expectations, positive or negative, are conveyed. A 1987 study conducted by Brophy and Good observed teacher-student interaction and concluded that teachers may unconsciously send different messages to low achievers than to high achievers. Low achievers often receive insincere praise, less feedback, and more criticism. In addition, these students tend to be called on less often and given less time to respond.
 
The lesson from the Brophy and Good study is that even the most dedicated teachers may be sending subtle, nonverbal cues that they expect less of certain students. Children don't fail to miss these cues, and they react accordingly.
 
In the current testing climate, with numbers used to define children, labeling our students is even easier. Also damaging is the offhand comment in the teacher's lounge, such as, “That Billy never does his homework” or “Sally hates math.” Rather than allowing negative first impressions to take root, teachers can strive to build a classroom culture in which every child is valued, challenged, and expected to succeed.


Every Individual Matters
Austin Winther, Assistant Professor of Education at Rowen University in Glassboro, New Jersey, and a former inner-city Chicago teacher, believes that having and communicating high expectations to the entire class from day one is crucial. “By meeting students individually and asking how to pronounce their names or what their favorite subjects are,” he says, “I send them the message that they are all important as individuals.”
 
Once students feel valued by simple gestures, such as eye contact and open smiles, they will be much more likely to accept the high expectations placed upon them. A positive attitude can truly work wonders because students intuitively sense that the teacher has a genuine interest and belief in them. Winther adds, “You have to make it clear on the first day that if they do the work asked of them, they are going to succeed.”
 
Winther's high behavioral expectations are intricately woven with his academic goals for his students. “Students begin to understand and value that it is unfair to interfere with another person's learning,” he says. In other words, making kids understand that they are part of a group helped them see the reasoning behind rules for the classroom. As a result high expectations become infectious, passed from one student to the next.
 
Karen Vanek, a lead Language Arts teacher at Oak Forest School in Houston, Texas, has had similar results. She reinforces her high expectations with academic rewards throughout the year. For example, if her students perform consistently well, she offers them a reading afternoon. Students bring in their favorite books and lounge on the floor in sleeping bags. Another reward might be an academic field trip. Explains Vanek, “I always make sure the rewards are academic in focus.”
 
Even something as simple as classroom setup can send positive messages to students who may feel isolated or insecure. Often these students migrate to the back of the room, removing themselves from vital classroom activity. Jane Lierman, a veteran teacher of multiage students at Oak Creek School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, understands well the challenges of blended classrooms, where students have special needs and often varying abilities: “Instead of placing troubled students in the back of the room where they are often forgotten,” she says, “I put them right in the front row.” Such a gesture sets the expectation that all students are an integral part of a successful classroom dynamic, and they all must participate in order for the class to succeed.


A Culture of Achievement
Individual teachers can do a great deal toward maintaining a positive attitude and expecting the best from all students, but when an entire school builds a culture of achievement together, the results can be truly astounding. One program that has had dramatic results creating and meeting high expectations across the board is The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).
 
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach For America graduates, founded the middle-school charter program after working at Garcia Elementary School in Houston, Texas, and all the schools' track records have been stellar. KIPP Academy in Houston has been named a Texas Exemplary school for seven years running; its students scored among the highest on the Texas State Exam. In addition, KIPP Academy in New York is one of the highest performing middle schools in the Bronx. Perhaps most impressive, however, is that 99 percent of KIPP alumni attend college preparatory high schools.


Work Hard, No Shortcuts
How do these unique schools continually meet and maintain such high expectations? KIPP UJIMA Village Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, holds its students and faculty alike to very high standards. This middle school, which opened its doors in August 2002, serves a student body composed entirely of African-American students, 90 percent of whom are from low-income homes.
 
Emblazoned on the entrance steps are the mottos that maintain the school´s high expectations: “Work Hard, Be Nice, No Shortcuts” and “Assign yourself team and family.” When one enters the meticulously clean building filled with eager students, dedicated teachers, and great hopes, he or she begins to understand that these mottos are not just empty words, but genuine commitments.
 
Before enrolling at the school, students must sign a contract committing to the rigorous program. The school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. Students also participate in a mandatory three-week summer program and attend educational activities on Saturdays throughout the school year.
 
The school´s high expectations are perhaps most reinforced by the first statement of the contract: “I will constantly work to improve the Village and myself and do whatever it takes to help all students learn as much as possible.” This rule translates into students who feel a deep responsibility to be engaged in their daily classes and to be part of an assigned “team or family.”
 
In English class, students lean forward in their seats to listen to their peers´ vocabulary paragraphs, which have been written on huge yellow sheets of paper to make them visible to all. They also keep a running count on raised fingers of how many vocabulary words have been used. In math class, teacher Brad Nornhold fires off rapid questions. Hands shoot up eagerly, but the first girl who answers a question gets it wrong. Her neighbor, however, leans over to share with her how to get the right answer. The room crackles with intellectual energy, and the students genuinely care about their peers´ progress.
 
This dynamic classroom atmosphere did not occur by accident. Nornhold comments: “At the beginning of the year, I explain to them that every hand should go up when I ask a question. There is no excuse for not trying.” He explains that students who distract others repeatedly are placed in “the den.” While these students can participate in class, they are isolated from their peers at the back of the room until they complete an apology letter to their classmates.
 
Malcolm X Lawson, a student in the sixth grade, takes his commitment to his peers very seriously. He explains why KIPP is different from other schools he has attended: “We just moved on before, even if other kids didn´t understand. Now we have to all get it to move on. I guess it´s kind of about unity.” Jason Botel, Principal of KIPP UJIMA Academy, later explains that Malcolm has recently lost his father and now takes two buses to get to school by 7:30 in the morning. Says Malcolm, “I´m going to be the first in my family to go to college. I´m going to start a tradition.”
 
So far, these high expectations have already paid great dividends for the students at KIPP UJIMA Village Academy. In its first year, the school achieved an attendance rate of 98.9 percent. They also received the second highest math scores and the eighth highest overall scores in the city on the Maryland School Assessment.


Watch Students Soar
KIPP schools teach us that the more our expectations are clarified and reinforced by the classroom culture, the more students will meet these expectations. In addition, when students embrace this culture of achievement, they convey this enthusiasm for learning to their peers. Students such as Malcolm take pride in all that is expected of them. The good news is that teachers still have the awesome power to set the bar high and watch their students soar over it. Says Austin Winther, “If you think kids can't learn, then they won't. But if you tell them they can do it, keep challenging them, expanding the kinds of [learning] they are being offered, then they will surprise you and be very successful.”  

  • Subjects:
    Teacher Tips and Strategies
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