High Expectations? Not so fast.

High Expectations? Not so fast.

I think one of the most dangerously misinterpreted pieces of advice given to new teachers is “You must have high expectations.” The idea is that students will rise to whatever your expectations are, no matter how high they are. This sentiment is promoted by movies like ‘Stand And Deliver’ and ‘Freedom Writers.’

The problem is that this three word maxim ‘Have high expectations’ is too vague. What, exactly, does it mean?

If it means, “Don’t be a racist who thinks that minority students aren’t as capable as the rich white kids on the other side of town,” well, I’d agree with that. But I don’t think that many new teachers, particularly ones that want to be in Teach For America, really have that sort of attitude, anyway.

The reason the advice ‘have high expectations’ is dangerous is that new teachers, in trying to follow this advice, commit one of the worst mistakes a teacher can, teaching over their heads.

The advice should be ‘Have realistically high expectations.’ This would force the new teacher to consider that there is such a thing as too high of expectations, and to try to learn what sorts of things are realistic.

I found this post from a new TFA corps member who obviously did not understand the subtleties of the ‘have high expectations’ advice.

‘Low expectations,’ it’s true, are a self-fulfilling prophecy, but ‘high expectations’ generally are not.

When you make things too complicated, students don’t rise to your ‘high expectations,’ they lose confidence in themselves and, more importantly, they lose confidence in the ability of their teacher. Once they decide that their teacher is not competent enough to make ‘appropriate level’ lessons, they stop listening, start talking, and make it impossible to teach.

Also, you can have high expectations and also understand that it’s good to make things a little easy in the beginning to win your class over, knowing that eventually you will get to the harder stuff. But if you go in there with unrealistically high expectations and confuse your students, you will have a very tough year.

This entry was posted in Teach For America, Teaching Advice. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to High Expectations? Not so fast.

  1. Ellen says:

    I normally really enjoy your blog, but I’m ]surprised that you called someone out in this particular post. As someone who has gone through quite a bit of teacher prep, I can see where this person is coming in planning the way he or she did. I’ve prepped myself to death in a masters program and TFA, and I am still not a master teacher. Of course not.

    Everone who is new to the profession, myself included, is trying to get things right. The problem is, we don’t always know what “right” is. Remember, we’re not looking at teaching with the 20×20 that you have.I love your advice in general, but it is really hard to implement until you have had the opportunity to make the mistakes that you are pointing out.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts. I really do like your blog, I just think it might be a little strong to point out a particular corps member, who is simply new to teaching.

  2. Ben Guest says:

    Great post. Completely agree. “High expectations” is just a bullshit phrase that people use when what they really mean is “Don’t have low expectations.” I take it a step further and tell my teachers, “Release yourself from all expectation.”

    Ben Guest
    Program Manager
    Mississippi Teacher Corps

  3. Brian Rude says:

    Good points, Gary. Self fulfilling prophecies do exist, but I think they are not nearly as ubiquitous as people seem to believe. When I was young a book called “The Power Of Positive Thinking” made a convincing case for optimism and high expectations. I thought it was a good book, but over the years I decided it really didn’t have much substance. Self fulfilling prophecies do exist, but not every fervent wish is going to be a self fulfilling prophecy. More recently, as I understand it, the book and movie “The Secret” is promoting much the same idea. Again positive thinking is good, but not every wish or good intention is going to be a self fulfilling prophecy.

    In my field, math, we are aware of “math anxiety“. Suggestions to deal with this phenomenon often include various types of confidence building measures, including having high expectations. I don’t want to put these suggestions down, but my view is that the only cure for math anxiety is math competence. The psychological suggestions for dealing with math anxiety make sense if there is a vicious circle going on – poor performance causes anxiety which causes poor performance, and so on. When this happens it certainly makes sense to try to break that vicious cycle. But if that cycle is not operating then confidence building exercises may have little effect. Once again, self fulfilling prophecies do exist, but they’re not the explanation for everything that happens.

    It seems to me that much of the argument for national standards is also based on this self-fulfilling prophecy idea. If we have high standards students will rise to them, and schools will rise to them. I don’t think it’s that simple. High standards are high expectations. We can attach some consequences to failure to meet these high expectations, but that is not the same as having a mechanism for meeting these high standards. Many students have very serious handicaps from their culture, their home, and their past. Simply having standards does not automatically obviate all these handicaps. Remember Goals 2000? If high expectations would do the job, the job would be done in 2000.

    The “just right challenge” is a relevant concept here. A challenge that is too easy has little meaning. A challenge that is too difficult may be motivating at times, but not always. Failure is not motivating, and unrealistic goals invite failure. I have long argued that the two most important motivations in school or anything else are personal attention and satisfaction of accomplishment. It is satisfaction of accomplishment that is important here. When teachers have unrealistic expectations, students fail. When they fail they experience frustration, not satisfaction of accomplishment. Therefore I would argue that realistic expectations are much more important than high expectations. Realistic expectations by teachers cause them to make realistic assignments. Realistic assignments lead to success. Success is motivating. Success leads to satisfaction of accomplishment, and that is a powerful motivator.

    Personal attention is also a powerful motivator, and to a certain extent high expectations are connected to personal attention. But if expectations are too high, leading to frustration, the value of personal attention can be compromised.

    There are two more phenomena that I think need more recognition, and that enter into a consideration of realistic goals. These two phenomena are the size of a subject matter and the invisibility of effort.

    The size of a subject matter is important. When one is only contemplating teaching something, it is easy to badly underestimate how much time will be needed. I have many times, when planning a day’s lesson, looked at the next section in the text book and thought, “That ought to take about ten minutes of class time”, and then the next day in class discovered that after ten minutes I was still introducing the concept. I would then realize that there are more examples to go over. Each example takes longer than expected to explain. And each example makes me realize there are several variations in the basic idea that need to be explained, with at least one example of each variation. The lesson of experience is pretty clear. Any topic I teach is going to take longer than I had anticipated. Each topic is a bigger subject than it seemed at first. My “high expectations”, again and again prove unrealistic.

    This chronic underestimation of time required is aggravated by the second phenomenon I mentioned, the invisibility of effort. This phenomenon operates in all areas of life. When something is done we tend to lose track of all the effort it took to get it done. And when something is done by somebody else, we may never realize the effort that went into getting it done. The other guy’s effort can be very invisible. As teachers we are responsible for setting the task for the other guy, meaning our students. If we badly underestimate the effort it will take to get it done we are setting them up for frustration, if not failure.

    So I totally agree with you. High expectations can be good, but they can also be bad. There is no magic in high expectations, and there are risks.

  4. Jamie Davies O'Leary says:

    As a TFA alum, I’m going to have to disagree that “high expectations is a bullshit phrase.” I agree that it’s too vague and often turns into first year corps members being ridiculously out of touch with what their students need… but setting high expectations (as in, your colleagues turn their heads and ask ‘why in the world are you setting such lofty goals?’) is also in great part what allows TFAers to be successful in the classroom.

  5. Belinda Gomez says:

    I think the course linked might work at a prep school where the students have had these requirements in previous years. But if all other classes have this kind of work load, it’s doomed.

  6. Laura says:

    I can’t understand how you managed to be put in schools as a corp member.
    “High expectation” means for you as a teacher:

    1. For the students who are having difficulties, you will set aside one extra HOUR every day, to help them one on one with their difficulties. I hope you are not one of these crappy teachers who is trying to pollute the corps member with their crappy mentality.

    2. For every student who is falling behind VERY “high expectations”, you – their teacher- will put aside a week-end to help them out. If it means setting up extra classes on saturday or sunday ( depending on the kid and teacher religious restrictions), you will – THEIR teacher who has the KID’s interests at heart- for 30 bloody week teach them one-on-one 5 more hours of math… TILL they reach the high goal!

    3. It means that every evening, you will CALL your kids at home, to go over their homework and check out they understand everything.

    If you can’t do 1,2,3 for your kids , then you shouldn’t be in teaching.
    You seem like a LOSER teacher. Get out of our classrooms. We’ve had enough of teachers like you who have systematically LOWERED our kids potential.

  7. garyrubinstein says:

    Laura, We don’t all have the ability, as you so obviously do, to slow down time so we have 28 hours a day and 8 days a week to compensate for not knowing the reading level of our students because we are new teachers. So this teacher with the impossibly difficult reading list is better of destroying his or her life with ‘extra help’ rather than just making a reading list that the students will understand?

    In answer to your question, I got a job as a corps member because I didn’t say anything about the possibility of ‘too high’ expectations in my interview. That’s not because I was holding back information, but because I was too naive at the time to know that this was a possibility.

    I’m really curious where / if you teach. Your comments are very puzzling to me. To not understand the context of what I’m saying, and to be able to respond with a logical argument, as I’ve tried to present, instead of resorting to calling me a ‘loser,’ an underachiever, and calling for my resignation.

    Fortunately, the vast majority of responses I’ve gotten and e-mails have been very supportive. I’m trying to help new teachers not lose their classes so that they can gradually bump up their expectations until they are high. But if they lose their classes, they won’t get the chance to teach anything.

  8. steph says:

    I agree with Laura

    You shouldn’t be in the corps.
    Go and join the army of ( more and more unemployed) bad teachers who pollute the public schools. Have you noticed that parents are fleeing these schools whenever they can?

    Teaching is NOT an easy job, and the corps do not need lazy teachers looking for a shortcut to make their own life comfortable at the expense of the kids’ education.

    Your mindset is similar to a mediocre teacher justifying his mediocrity:
    – I don’t promote high expectations because it will destroy my own health
    – I don’t challenge the kids, because they will fail anyway
    And you want us to applaud THAT?

    The corps is demanding , hence the need to attract OVERachievers who for a short time will give everything for their kids.
    Corps teachers are HEROS not losers.
    There are enough mediocre teachers out there.

  9. garyrubinstein says:

    Based on your comments, Steph and Laura, and your United Kingdom source IP address, I get the feeling that you know nothing about Teach For America. You say I shouldn’t be in the Corps, but should become a public school teacher. But that’s what the corps does — they teach in public schools. Also, a true TFAer wouldn’t ever suggest a bad teacher go teach in a failing school. The failing schools are the ones who need the best teachers. That’s the whole point of TFA.

    And I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t challenge kids. The best teacher figures out what kids feel they’re able to do and then push them a little further than that. Then, little by little, you increase their confidence until they reach whatever your high goals were.

    I’ve taught for 11 years and have always had high expectations. I’ve had a lot of success — had the highest percentage of students passing the standardized test, teacher of the year award, and a bunch of other stuff.

    You need to understand that I’m not promoting low expectations. I’m asking new teachers to try to learn what the starting point of their students are as they try to set goals that their kids can reach.

    Even if you look at that post of the British Lit topics that other CM proposed and then look at his or her recent blogs where he/she learns that some of his/her students are illiterate.

  10. Laura says:

    we are working on a school project in the UK: is that a problem for you?

  11. garyrubinstein says:

    Are you one of the people setting up this ‘Teach For England’ program?

    You should know that this idea that you’ve been so against (that it is possible that some new teachers set unrealistically high expectations, which could lead to less learning) is not a controversial point of view to Teach For America or related programs. See the comment from the program manager of the Mississippi Teacher Corps (which is an offshoot of Teach For America). It’s just part of being professional, knowing what the right amount is to push your students. Teach For America tells the same thing to the corps members in their training, though they say it less bluntly than I do, I’m sure. My complaint wasn’t that TFA wasn’t trying to convey this message, just that they didn’t succeed with that new CM with the Brit Lit reading list. This is the reason that only you and your buddy Steph are the only people fighting with me about this post.

    I don’t know a lot about the British educational system, but I’ll try to explain things in terms that you might understand. Maybe all the schools are as good your esteemed Hogwarts. But even there, the teachers know that you don’t try to teach more than students are capable of. You slowly bring them along until they are defeating Lord Voldemort. Why do you think they didn’t teach Harry the Patronus Charm until the third book? Was it low expectations? No. It was just doing what good teachers (like me) do. Figure out what students are ready for, pick a goal a bit beyond that, and keep doing that over and over, raising their skills that way.

    You really don’t know enough about my track record and the results that my students have achieved to warrant all the insults you’ve thrown at me.

    You also don’t know how much people have understood and appreciated my point of view.
    See http://missbennettinthebay.teachfor.us/2008/06/24/an-open-letter-to-gary-rubenstein/ for an example from a very dedicated teacher.

    I’m only bothering to dignify them with a response because I’m thinking that if you are a decision maker in a ‘Teach For England’ program, I’m hoping that I can teach you a little about training new teachers. I do believe that I can get through to you since I’m someone with high expectations for the people I’m trying to help.

  12. Ben Guest says:


    Just a note of clarification: the Mississippi Teacher Corps is not an off-shoot of TFA. MTC is a state-wide program founded in 1989. That being said MTC and TFA draw many of the same kinds of participants, work in similar settings, etc. Oddly enough MTC was co-founded by a Harvard student while TFA was founded, at almost the exact same time, by a Yalie.

    Wish I could say I’ve enjoyed the debate, but clearly Laura has never taught…

    Ben Guest

  13. Kelly says:

    First of all, I teach in Arizona and do not know what the corps is about. We have new teacher programs in our state as well, which I am sure all districts do. One thing I would like to point out before my reply is that Laura and Steph are the same person. I can tell by the way they type and the language they use. Obviously she needed someone to agree with her, so she made up a person to do just that. Ha-Ha!

    Laura/Steph, I don’t need to spend extra hours and weekends working with these students. I have been teaching for ten years and have no problem helping them during the school day, as it should be. I teach the lessons well enough that 80 to 85 percent of the class can do their work independently. If they can’t, then either the lesson wasn’t taught well, or it is way over their heads and needs to be broken down into smaller lessons, or just scrapped all together. I spend enough of my own time at home grading papers, lesson planning, and communicating with parents. That doesn’t make me a lazy or mediocre teacher. I am just an efficient teacher. The Government pays for tutoring for the Title One students who are way below standards. So if I stay after school and tutor, then I get paid for it. One thing I can’t stand is a teacher with poor grammar! Not only does it set a bad example for the students, it gives teachers a bad wrap! Try using your grammar and spell checker if you cannot do it on your own.

    Anyway, on the subject of high expectations:

    When I first started teaching fourth grade, I began in a different district than where I student taught. To my shock and dismay, the students’ abilities were much lower just 12 miles down the road. The district’s expectations were even lower than mine! My expectations were so high, that I left myself open for nothing but frustration and disappointment. Over the years I have adjusted my expectations to reach the “upper middle” level of the class. This way, the excelling students still excel, and the rest of the students fall almost exactly where they should on any bell curve. Then I found that I don’t like seeing a lot of C’s and some D’s and F’s, so I adjusted them again. My graph looks more like an “on ramp” to the freeway now! It begins with one F, one D, a couple of C’s and the rest A’s and B’s. This way, the students feel successful, and I am happy. I gradually increase them as the year goes on and I have gained their respect and established relationships with them. Three years in a row, 100 percent of my students passed all 3 of the State Tests. However, last year, one “lazy” student who was crippled by his parents because they do EVERYTHING for him, didn’t pass the math test. Nevertheless, each year I have found that I must adjust my expectations to meet the needs of my new students. (Academic and Behavior)

    Why does it seem that each year comes with worsening behavior, diminishing respect, and a rising percentage of students who are “above the rules”? Not to mention, a lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills. I haven’t changed! Where can I get a new book each year that will evolve with our changing society? How can I get parents to stop doing EVERYTHING for their kids? How can we remove some of life’s quick and easy solutions? It’s ruining our kids’ brains!! And, motivation to do well is superseded now by a motivation to just hurry up and finish!

    I am beginning to believe that 50 percent of elementary students have a significant attention problem as a result of all the electronic entertainment!

    Gary, I found your book on Amazon.com and can’t wait to get it! It sounds like you and I started out teaching the same way. (Softies)


    Have a great day!

  14. nyteacher says:


    I would like to know if you do everything you feel a good teacher should do. How many years have you been teaching? I work from 8am to 5pm everyday. Sometimes until 8pm. I spend my entire Sunday planning lessons, making assessments, and getting instructional materials together. The only day I have for my family, who need me, is on Saturday.
    So you propose I give up my only day to help the students who will sit idly in my class and not attempt to finish assignments. Even when I send assignments home, the parents don’t even help them complete these assignments.
    We are teachers, we are not these students’ parents. There needs to be more parental responsibility, and less blame on teachers.

    And the fact that you cannot understand the OP leads me to believe that you are completely out of touch with reality. When you are a new teacher you feel high expectations means that if you believe a child can do something, they should be able to do it, but as a new teacher we forget The Zone of Proximal Development, and set unrealistic expectations. That is what he is trying to say; don’t start with unrealistic expectations.

    I have very high expectations for my students, but I will not set them up for failure. I will provide them work they can feel successful with, and then work them up.

    Btw, I teach in a NYC public school, that has successfully raised student scores. My children attend a NYC public school, and are excellent students. Just because there are teachers that clearly do not belong in the classroom, do not judge all others based on your misconceptions.

  15. 50 Miles of Bad Road says:

    I hate those movies! Bleccch. Teacher swoops in like Batman, battles the Evil Education Machine (being the first teacher EVER who’s not a cynical, worn out, inept moron in highwater pants) and breaks the evil spell cast upon the innocent children (all geniuses in the rough, mind you).

    We’re not superheroes.

    But the kids aren’t charity cases, either.

    High expectations can be as simple as remembering that any child can get excited about learning. That doesn’t mean that all of them will, though. Try as we might, some of them are preoccupied with other things, and we won’t always win that battle.

    Today’s high expectation? “Sit down, young lady. I am not going to let you waste these other children’s time, and you are too bright to be making such a fool of yourself.”

    She sat down, too.

  16. G says:

    Laura and Steph don’t have the slightest idea how the real world (teaching-related or not) works…good luck to them.

  17. Allison says:

    I don’t necessarily agree at all with the overall post and message of “not so fast” on those high expectations. I am a TFA corps member, teaching on the border of US and Mexico, and I have a group of students with ranging abilities.

    I (really really really) strongly agree with having high expectations. But, I think the point you are trying to make (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that you must scaffold and meet your students where they are before you can bring them up to the level of rigor you must have in your class.

    I think this is illustrated by your comment of “when you make things too complicated…” High expectations and a rigorous class does not have to be complicated, and, in fact, it should be complicated. Because you should have built the ladder with scaffolded material before jumping in to an ambitious and rigorous topic.

    Scaffolding doesn’t mean that your expectations are lowered. And it is possible to maintain your high expectations.

  18. garyrubinstein says:

    Allison, Yes, that’s pretty much what I’m trying to say. Thanks. Gary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s