Sorting Teacher Bias and “High Expectations”

Watch for Cheryl Mizerny’s new blog at MiddleWeb, “It’s Not Easy Being Tween,” coming in September!

cheryl-m-08-15By Cheryl Mizerny

In the education profession, there is a tendency to jump on the next big idea in hopes of finding some sort of magic bullet for student success. As a result, there are new buzzwords, acronyms, or “revolutionary” technologies that appear with alarming frequency.

One of these that gets a lot of attention is the concept of “high expectations.” On its surface, this seems to be a winner. Who would argue for lowering our expectations? However, upon further inspection, it seems that what many people consider high expectations are actually overly militant behavior guidelines or inflexible approaches to having students demonstrate knowledge.

Getting beyond the “high expectations” mandate

In my mind, high expectations are not about teaching obedience or expecting cookie-cutter work from all students. Merely mandating a higher standard from students does not achieve the desired results. Instead, high expectations for all students mean that educators expect students to reach their full potential and they help them achieve these goals. The challenge is deciding just how to help kids believe in themselves and reach higher.

As an English teacher, I am constantly reminding my students to “Show, Don’t Tell” in their writing. The same advice is good for teachers, because expressing your high expectations is not just something you say, it is something you do and show. Why does this matter? Because it’s a joy to behold a room full of kids working to their full capacity and becoming self-directed learners.

Believing in each student’s capability

thumbs up sayingOf paramount importance in the endeavor to maintain high expectations for children is the teachers’ absolute, sincere belief in the capability of their students and in their own capacity to help make this belief a reality.

A good teacher’s goal is to encourage all students to become confident in their ability to succeed and to assure them that we will do everything in our power to get them there. It is not enough to merely tell them these beliefs – we must communicate them through our behavior as well.

First and foremost, teachers must be wary of preconceived notions about our students. These can come from many sources, including cumulative files and previous teachers. Any negativity we encounter will only color our relationship with our students, and based on this information we may be unconsciously treating them as less capable than we should.

Here’s how I deal with this: I don’t read any school files until at least a month into school. Also, I take the opinion of other adults who have previously interacted with this child with a grain of salt until I can see for myself.

Giving the child a fresh start

Vector blackboard. Highly detailed. Easy to edit. Education vector collection.

I prefer to give every child a fresh start and get to know them as individuals, and I tell them this at the beginning of the school year. We all appreciate the chance to wipe our slate clean. I remind myself that children will make many mistakes on the road to adulthood. My approach shows them that, as far as I’m concerned, they are all star students in my class.

As the adult in the room, I am cognizant that the children are constantly watching my behavior as a model for how to treat one another and me. Therefore, I am very deliberate in my actions to make all of them feel noticed and valued.

One way to do this is to be hyper-vigilant with regard to assessment/evaluation, as well as any discipline and privileges we assign. I make sure I give adequate feedback in addition to or in place of a grade. (If you aren’t sure about your ability to grade objectively, try covering the names or asking for another teacher’s opinion on the mark you assigned. You may be surprised.)

Assuring equitable consequences

With regard to misbehavior, an equal offense merits an equal consequence for all children. That being said, by not treating any students as the “bad” kids, I tend not to have any. It’s also important to be aware of who is given the spoken and unspoken rewards in our classrooms. For example, do we always choose the same student to run errands or pass out papers?

Illustration depicting a set of cut out letters formed to arrange the words not fair.

These may seem like minor matters, but what I have noticed with middle school students is that the concept of what is “fair” is often their primary concern. By showing them that I treat all students fairly, they know that they all have equal esteem in my eyes and I am counting on all of them to be exceptional.

Other behaviors that convey worthiness to students are more subtle. For example, pay attention to your body language. Do you tend to face some students and turn your side or back to others? Do you stand in closer proximity to certain students? Do some receive more smiles from you than others? Do some get your full attention and eye contact? Be mindful of your tone of voice as well.

Regardless of what is happening in the classroom, our interactions with students should be courteous at all times. The way we deal with children is every bit as important as what we say.

Designing “stretch and grow” instruction

Because a teacher’s primary duty is to educate students, teachers who demonstrate high expectations design learning experiences that demand that students stretch and grow as learners. These teachers encourage critical thinking and inquiry, value complex problem solving and real world activities, and provide a rich curriculum reflective of and connected to their students’ strengths and interests.

Vector illustration of young sprout in crack.

The secret to success is to make sure that the work is challenging, but also joyful and exciting. We also want to provide every opportunity and avenue for children to successfully access the content and demonstrate their learning. When a teacher believes in a child and shows them a path to achieve, the child will begin to internalize this belief and take ownership of their learning. In the end, we want our students to be able to vocalize that they expect to be able to master the material and are ready to share in the responsibility for doing so.

Others ways we communicate expectations

Teachers can also communicate high expectations through day-to-day instructional management. It is imperative to design activities that allow for all students to develop high-level thinking skills. One way to show you value all students is to use mixed ability grouping. This demonstrates that you feel that all children in the group have something important to add to the conversation and have equal worth.

Another action involves our questioning techniques. Ask challenging questions that require more than just basic recall. Make sure that you call on everyone equally and don’t always search for the one correct answer. Provide adequate wait time and perhaps ask prompting questions if a student is struggling. Encourage deeper thinking by asking, “Why do you think so?”

Teachers should explicitly communicate how they will assess performance and give ample feedback and support for students to meet the requirements. If we truly expect all children in our classes to feel successful, we must create the conditions for that to happen.

Valuing diversity

Teens-Faces 270Finally, it is crucial that all our students feel represented and respected. Make a thoughtful effort to use materials that represent everyone in your class, but not in a stereotypical way. Use language that is inclusive of all students. Be aware of your own biases and don’t put kids in a box.

Analyze the lessons and materials you currently use for any biases against backgrounds, gender, ability, or family structure. Encourage students to bring their own culture and interests to the classroom. Use their strengths as a starting point for instruction. Through our inclusive actions we communicate their worth, and they will eventually internalize this belief.

Letting students know what they mean to you

Having high expectations does not have to mean instituting strict behavior rules and no-excuses work policies. Expectations can be embedded in the everyday ways we relate to our students that show them they mean something to us and that we believe in their ability to reach their goals.

Every student is unique and will progress at their own pace and in their own way, but they all have the right to be challenged, excited, and successful in their school day.

Goethe said, “Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be.” Our treatment of our students matters—more than we may ever realize.

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 20+ years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher and is a regular contributor to the SmartBrief SmartBlog on Education. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

2 Responses

  1. Susan Mulcaire says:

    Nice article. The Fresh Start is so important — letting students leave behind the baggage of prior years and reinvent themselves. Good life lesson too.

  2. Mike Morgan says:

    I’m also an educator with 20 yrs + experience. Your major points hits the nail on the head. Prejudging our learners before we start instruction really puts us behind and just using the buzzword “high expectations ” does very little to cover up our own insecurities about what we do in the classroom. I really love this article and will be sharing it with my fellow learning facilitators.

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