Monday, April 9, 2012

Expectations vs. Wishes - What Do We Want for Our Kids and Ourselves?


School leaders everywhere claim to hold high expectations of their students. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. So, we see and hear the mantra in campus mission statements, superintendents' initiatives, and school board campaigns. Of course, this is how it should be! The debate is not whether we should declare to have high expectations of all students. My concern, quite frankly, is that we simply don't mean it.


Defining Expectations
Our problem is not that we intentionally hold low expectations of our students, but we fail to define exactly what it is we expect. By default, we go around repeating slogans that resemble "wishes" more than true, realisitic expectations.

To create an evnironment that truly nurtures high expectations, one must clearly define what expectations are in the first place. Being explicit about what an expectation is and is not, I believe, is one of the most concrete tasks that school leaders can perform to lay the foundation for successful student learning. Furthermore, this work at the "front end" will also support professional development and adult learning.
Let's begin, then, with a definition of expectation. An expectation is something anticipated, something we can look forward to, an event that one not only hopes for, but also trusts will happen. In our minds, a true expectation is so certain to occur that we make plans accordingly. For instance, I expect the sun to set this evening and to rise again tomorrow. I am so sure of it that I plan my eating and sleeping patterns (sometimes not all that consistently) based upon this expectation.

The key criterion of an expectation is that it is worth arranging one's life (or work or play, or in our case, class or school) around. In other words, to expect is to fully believe to the point of acting. On Monday morning, for example, I expect to still have my job. As a result of this expectation, I plan to wake up early, dress a certain way, leave an adequate time for the commute (another aspect dependent on real expectations of traffic flow, street lights functioning, etc.) and so on in order to arrive at my job.
The practical point here is that there are very real consequences to our plans if expectations are not met. Continuing with my previous illustration, if an unexpected delay arises, such as road construction or a car accident that I could not have foreseen, then I will be late to work, or at the very least, I will have to find another route. In short, my original plan will be insufficient and must change. Therefore, the first test to tell if a true expectation exists is whether plans will have to change as a result of it not occuring.

This, in turn, becomes the litmus test to determine if I truly hold an expectation of my students. If I think I expect something of them, then I can ask myself, "What changes in my plans does it create if they do not meet it?"


"Close Your Eyes and Make a Wish"
A wish is what someone does when blowing out candles on a birthday cake, buying a lottery ticket, or bringing in the New Year. A wish is almost the opposite of an expectation because it precisely deals with wanting things to be different than they really are. Wishes do not lead to action because there is no serious belief that they will happen. To make the point, let's return to my analogy of going to work on Monday morning. I may wish I didn't have to go to work the entire weekend leading up to Monday, but come Monday morning I will find myself carrying out all the necessary plans to meet my expectations and arrive to work on time.

Expectations guide our plans because we are so sure they will happen. Wishes do not guide anything, but only offer distractions to the reality we face. Therefore, I submit that spending more professional time on wishes in our schools is a waste of time, at best, and more often worse, a hindrance to student learning.


Do Our Actions Betray Our Words?
Now, we may hone in on the implications of this discussion in our school settings. Consider these two examples. Reflect on whether you believe the teacher in each case is expressing a wish or an expectation.
  • A teacher encourages her students while passing out the unit test in math class, "I have faith in all of you. Remember, you have learned all the material on this test. Have confidence. I know you will all do well. I expect everyone to pass with flying colors!" Behind the teacher, on the front board, is a note including the date, time, and policy for test re-takes.
  • Students enter the classroom after greeting their teacher at the door. A starter, or warm-up activity, is projected on the screen. Most students quickly take their seats and begin working on the starter. When the bell rings, the teacher enters the room and closes the door behind her. She notices a couple boys standing near their desks with no supplies out, conversing about their favorite parts of a movie they saw over the weekend. She calmly says to them, "You know the routine for how we start class everyday. Now, instead of being able to take attendance right away, I am taking time to address you about what you should be doing." Then, she asks, "What is your assigned task right now?" One boy answers with an eyeroll, "Do the starter." The teacher responds, "Good. Then, please do so now. Thank you."
Let's approach it from a broader perspective. Read the following statements and decide if each item constitutes a wish or an expectation in your mind.
  • Students should have clean, organized lockers.
  • Students should be in class before the tardy bell rings.
  • Students need to show respect to adults by addressing them with words like "sir" and "ma'am."
  • Students are responsible for their own learning.
  • If students don't turn their work in on time, then they should fail.
Well, how did you label them? Was it difficult to fit any of them in one category or the other? What were your thoughts as you analyzed these beliefs?


Explicitly Communicating Expectations

There is a simple axiom that I wish (yes, wish; I don't expect it) was written across the front doors of all schools (and stores, businesses, houses, etc. for that matter):
People cannot be held responsible for information they do not have.
We spend a great deal of time in education, appropriately so, talking about learning targets and objectives. We stress the importance of clearly defining our expected outcomes. In fact, we have almost developed an entire vocabulary in our field just for this topic. Despite what we call them, the purpose is for teachers and students to know when they have met a particular objective and what it takes to show that they have met it.

If we do this with academic behaviors, then should it be any different with other behaviors? If not, then our premise is that for students to recognize and correct misbehavior, they must first be able to identify the expected behavior. A person only knows he missed a target if he can locate the target in the first place. It might be worth taking another look at just how clear we are being versus how clear we think we are being.


Before listing specific suggestions to help ensure that expectations are clear and explicit, there is one more important point. Contrary to the superstition attached to wishes ("Don't tell anyone or it won't come true."), there is a guarantee that goes with expectations. Don't tell everyone and it won't come true! If you want to ensure that people won't follow expectations, assume they already know them.

So, how can we create a culture built on common expectations that guide our daily work? Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling. (If you have other ideas, then include them in your comments.)


  • APPLICABLE TO ALL
A great way to ensure fairness and safety in a school is to create expectations that apply to ALL people, regardless of age, gender, background, etc. It is true that the actual behavior in response to an expectation might look different from one individual to another. For example, a teacher will meet the expectation of being prepared for class in a different manner than a student. Still, the expectation of being prepared would apply to both stakeholders.
Some would challenge this suggestion by saying that adults and teachers should be held to different standards. Is it responsible, though, to expect something of children that you wouldn't expect of adults?


  • PASS THE "DEAD MAN'S" TEST
Rule of thumb: If breathing is not a prerequisite to following your rule or meeting your expectation for students, then change it. Too often, we define for students the exact behaviors we don't want to see from them. Don't talk. No horseplay. Don't get out of your seat. Don't be late to class. No running in the halls. (All things a dead man can do.) I catch myself doing this much more frequently than I'd like to admit. Instead of constantly making requests that don't require a pulse, I could clarify and model a positively stated expectation, and then, well, expect it.

Of course, we already do this in education. It is often just too late. I see positively stated expectations frequently on behavior contracts used as interventions with students for discipline reasons. There is nothing wrong with this practice. Indeed, it is helpful in many cases to offer students (and even adults) replacement behaviors. It is a quick way of telling kids, "Stop doing ___ and start doing ___ instead."

What about just having "placement" behaviors that are clearly defined up front for all students? Then, each person can know how to act in this "place" all the time. If behavior contracts have been shown to be constructive supports for student discipline, I can't help but wonder why a school with 1000 students wouldn't have 1000 behavior contracts.


  • EASY TO IDENTIFY
This seems obvious, but can be tricky. Clarity with expectations usually is found in the action words. The most important words of our expectations might be the verbs and adverbs. The guiding question is, "What does that look like?" So, even with a broad expectation, such as Be Respectful, there need to be defined behaviors that demonstrate it.

In fact, a good check-for-understanding is to not only ask a student to tell you what an expectation is, but to also show you. If a young person can describe it in words yet has trouble getting his body to physically act it out, then we still have work to do in defining the expectation.

  • NEVER GO AWAY
Another specific characteristic of true expectations is that they never go away. Sure, there are expectations that are particular to certain events or times, but in the context of developing a campus culture the emphasis should be on expectations that always guide daily routines. As educators, we might ask, "What is it that we expect from students and each other everyday, all day?" Consider these silly scenarios to make the point in the context of the following expectations.

Expectation = Be Productive: The high school principal is driving to work one day when he suddenly realizes, "Oh no! Today is Thursday! I forgot that my science department decided to not be productive on every other Thursday. I can't have that meeting with them after all."
Expectation = Be Prepared: The teachers didn't bother gathering for the called meeting because last time the assistant principal wasn't prepared. After that, a decision was made by central office that this particular AP didn't have to be prepared for any more meetings this grading period.

Expectation = Be Respectful: The faculty has decided that since Fridays after lunch are when students are most riled up and have difficulty following directions and settling down, they will have a ten-minute period after each lunch where students can go outside and yell at one another and push each other around to release some of their energy.
Admittedly, these are absurd accounts. But that is the point! If an expectation is good enough to have part of the time, then it is good enough to have all the time. Without consistent expectations, there would be chaos.


 
Handling Disappointments
Have you ever heard a speaker say, "If you don't remember anything else I say, then at least remember this one thing."? Well, pretend you hear me saying that in your ear right now while you read this last part. I cannot stress the significance of this final component enough, and it is my opinion that not taking this point into account is what causes many educators to retreat back into the world of wishes instead of holding students to clear, consistent expectations.

Here is the truth. If you have expectations, then there will be times when they are not met. Young people need to learn that an unmet expectation leads to disappointment.

If expectations are consistent and don't go away, then I can confidently tell you another expectation (something I am sure of) I have of myself. There will be times I will fall short and fail to meet an expectation. And I am confident that I am not alone. We all mess up.

Consider this analogy of my doctor's appointment. If I miss a doctor's appointment, there is usually a financial consequence (missed appointment fee) and a time consequence (re-schedule). Depending on the logistics that have to be worked out, there may be additional effects (securing childcare, missing more work, etc.). It does mean that I will have to make arrangements and change my plans (remember our criterion of an expectation). There will be a cost, or inconvenience.

It does NOT have to mean that I just give up altogether. I do not quit going to the doctor or ignore health care needs forever. It is not the end of the world. It is a setback.

We can help students mature as whole people if we help them equate "dis-appointment" with "miss-appointment." When a student fails to meet an expectation, then he needs to learn to "re-schedule an appointment" to make up for the disappointment. The more a student does this, the more he is able to take more ownership of "making it right" and grow from the experiences. 

That is why this whole discussion of expectations and campus culture is critical. If we are too wishy-washy and inconsistent with expectations, then students have little direction and tend to make excuses for their own behaviors. On the other hand, if we compile a list of unrealistic expectations with no supports in place to help students meet them and then attach an equally long list of "gotcha!" punishments to it, then students will tend to disengage and resent the learning environment. Either way, we do a disservice to our primary stakeholders and run the risk of stunting their intellectual, social, and/or emotional development.

When it comes to building a school culture, it is necessary to keep in mind that expectations are aimed at creating an environment of safety and excellence for the whole community, not demanding perfection from individuals. To be honest about expectations (as they are described in this article) means we must also be honest about disappointment, which is the logical result of failing to meet an expectation. It will happen. Fortunately, it provides us with one of the richest teaching moments in our careers working with children and youth.