As a high school basketball player, I struggled with free throws. On the ability spectrum, I fell somewhere between Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neil — certainly not great, but not terrible. However, my coach set high expectations for free throw shooting percentage and, as a player, I was expected to meet those expectations. Presto. High expectations and suddenly, my free throw shooting improved.
Or, was it really that easy?
In the world of education, we are fond of using any number of words/phrases that convey the importance of high expectations for students. We talk about rigor. We stress the importance of challenging our students. We implore colleagues to set high expectations for students, with the assumption that they will rise to meet those expectations. It is a nice theory, but it is dismissive of a significant piece of the equation for student success — support.
Let’s be clear about something, we should have high expectations for the behavioral and academic performance of our students, but raising expectations, without a correlating increase in support is unlikely to have the desired effect. We must also realize that while, in many instances, our level of expectation may be the same for each of our students, their required level of support (in order to meet those expectations) is likely to be different.
So what do we do in order to provide students with the support necessary to realize the expectations we have for them?
- Start by getting to know them on an individual basis. Develop an understanding of their personal strengths, interests, home life and current support system (if they have one). Do they have a quiet place to do homework? What responsibilities do they have outside of school (i.e. babysitting)? Do they have family support? Are their basic needs being met? Knowing the answers to questions like these allows us to gain a better understanding of the priority each student places on school, and how we might “mind the gap” by providing additional supports.
- Coach them. Don’t assume that students understand what they need to do in order to meet high expectations. When I was struggling with free throws, my coach worked with me to improve my form, taught me to believe in my ability and he provided the time and structure necessary for me to practice and improve. Likewise, we must teach our students how to overcome challenges, set goals, experience success, and consistently improve — for some, it will be easier than for others.
- Keep trying. If something isn’t working, do something different. Be willing to look at current practices and make an honest assessment about their benefit for students. If students are not completing their homework, don’t just assume they are being difficult. Consider how you might accomplish the same thing in a different way. How might you make assignments more meaningful? Are you assigning too much? Do students understand how to complete the assignment? As Einstein so eloquently put it, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
As educators, we must set the bar high for our students, but we must also accept the responsibility of providing students with the support required to achieve at that level. Not an easy thing to do. Anyone can say they have established high standards, but only committed and diligent educators will do all that is necessary to ensure their students have every opportunity to be successful.
A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~ Patricia Neal