We Have To Set High Expectations For Our Kids, But Getting It Right Is A Pretty Tough Balancing Act.

I’m going to be honest with you. If you’re a teacher too, then my version of “high expectations” might not look like yours. We know that high expectations are the goal, of course, but knowing what they look like is a lot tougher than we may realize.

Let me clarify a few things about my own expectations so you’ll see what I mean. I have a pretty solid track record of classroom management. Rarely am I forced to send a kid out of my room, and when I do, it’s only as an absolute last resort. I try to take most disciplinary issues into my own hands, at least the minor ones, and I demand respect at all times from my students.

In terms of classwork, all of my assignments are aligned with the new (and incredibly rigorous) science standards, and the curriculum that I use is well-structured and sequenced. And for what it’s worth, participation grades in my class are like NCAA championship trophies in Louisville — few and far between, and not especially consequential.

In a nutshell, I try my best to teach at a high level, which means my class is no cakewalk. That’s what good teaching is supposed to look like, right?

But now as we approach the end of the school year, I’m reflecting pretty deeply on the expectations I set for my students and they’re apparently different from a lot of other teachers out there in the eduverse.

For example, there are a lot of seasoned teachers out there whose late work policies make mine look like a slap on the wrist. In an effort to help students experience a taste of the “real world,” these teachers issue immediate zeroes to all those who fail to meet the deadline for their assignments. Chalk it up to tough love, kids.

Perhaps that’s what high expectations look like to some, but for me, I’m content with taking off a letter grade for every day an assignment is late. Maybe it’s just because “the real world” has been pretty cushy for this sensitive Millennial, but I don’t think that complying with rules should be our main priority as educators.

There’s certainly value in getting kids to follow established rules, and of course, everyone should understand the importance of deadlines and time management. However, compliance shouldn’t be the main goal. I want my kids to learn and actually do their work, but failing kids for events that are often out of their control seems pretty detrimental to a positive learning environment.

That’s what makes high expectations so tough. There are plenty of draconian policies like this that I’m sure were issued with good intentions, but have really moved beyond the limits of “high expectations” into the land of “zero-tolerance.” And for a multitude of reasons, that’s pretty dangerous ground.

As Marilyn Anderson Rhames puts it, zero-tolerance “manages high school student behavior by dictating what kids can wear; what colors they can dye their hair; how straight they sit at their desks; how closely they track their teacher; and even how silently they walk in the hallways during passing periods. Breaking these arbitrary rules can rack up demerits, which can lead to a detention, which can lead to a suspension, which can lead to grade retention.”

Take a wild guess what else it can lead to.

Now, that doesn’t mean I agree on all of those things, and we should absolutely set high standards for our kids. But that doesn’t have to mean doling out strict consequences for every incident, regardless of situation or context.

Are you letting your students do the thinking for themselves? Are they being challenged with appropriate, grade-level assignments? Do you believe and are you instilling the belief within your students that they can learn what is being presented to them?

Good. Then let those things reveal your “high expectations,” not things like kicking kids out of class for gum or expelling a student for using profanity.

When our expectations become vindictive, they cease to be expectations at all; they become an indictment of our own commitment to our kids and their potential.

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