Leadership / First Year of Teaching / Best Practice
The Importance of High Expectations
The pursuit is the journey, and excellence is the destination. I strongly believe in that statement. My work and my writing reflects this thought. The journey to excellence will become derailed if you do not set high expectations for yourself and the people that work with you, including all of your students. My expectation is excellence. This expectation transcends my professional and personal life. I do not know how close I have ever gotten to reaching excellence, but I have never stopped trying. This pursuit and quest energizes me. I hope it will energize you. Colin Powell once said, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habits in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
In both the world of education and the business world, we do not operate with a mindset of high expectations. We do not have high expectations for our students, our teachers, our administrators, and perhaps more importantly, for ourselves.
Good coaches and highly skilled athletes and performers possess high expectations. They believe in themselves, and they never enter a contest or a performance believing that they cannot win. I recall one day when I was a coach, my team was playing in a state championship play-off game. I let my expectations slip. I looked at the opposing team, and they were bigger, stronger, faster, and expertly coached. In essence, I was happy to be in the game with little hope of winning. Although I never actually communicated this to my players, I believe they subtly picked up on my demeanor. By halftime, we were very evenly matched and perhaps outplaying this opponent. I realized then that we could actually win. I remember leaning over to one of my assistants and saying, “Hey, we can win this thing.” However, it was too late. We faltered in the second half and ultimately lost. I could not turn on my high expectations for success at halftime. I take full responsibility for that loss because I initially did not believe we could win. I sacrificed my philosophy of optimism and high expectations, and it cost the entire team. I was willing to settle for just being in the championship game.
We do this all of the time in our classrooms and schools. We settle! Superintendents do not push principals. Principals do not push teachers. Teachers do not push the students. Parents do not push their children. We all settle. Isn’t that a shame?
Many days we begin our school day believing that students “can’t” rather than believing they “can”. Words and thoughts such as complacency, mediocrity, okay, and good enough permeate our schools and districts. Parents are also quick to latch onto an environment of low expectations for their children. Although they may talk a good game, they too are happy with “just good enough.” They are quick to relinquish high expectations for peace in the household. I have been there. Principals and teachers do it all of the time. In previous posts, we talked about the “contract of mediocrity”. This contract permeates our schools. Once we sign off on this contract, we settle for low expectations and will rarely, if ever, achieve excellence.
It is incumbent upon all of us to clearly articulate what we expect from our students and give each student a viable avenue to reach these expectations. We cannot expect everyone to take the same path on this journey. We will all take different roads on our pursuit of excellence.
High expectations can change the culture of the school. They start at the top. The principal must possess and communicate high expectations for all. He /she must possess a can-do attitude to attain these expectations. He /she sets the tone. There are personal expectations for each student and collective expectations for the school. The principal must be the driving force to help people accomplish things they never thought possible. Of course, the fulfillment of high expectations requires talent, the right attitude, and the right work ethic. However, I am convinced that if talent is lacking, expectations, attitude, and work can help overcome deficiencies in this area. Likewise, I have seen low expectations allow students to waste unlimited talent.
I was proud to be the principal and later superintendent in a school and district that witnessed the benefit of high expectations and pushing students toward excellence. Through a confluence of separate events, we were able to position our students to attend some of the best colleges and universities in America. At one time, we had five recent graduates that became medical doctors. Perhaps, more incredibly, most of their degrees came from an Ivy League Institution. Another young man recently completed his degree from Harvard Law School. I could boast forever about these students. It is important to note that they were from an urban school in an urban low socioeconomic district. All of these young men and women were very talented. However, I think we helped instill the belief that they could achieve at these very high levels. ***See notes
I can remember a poignant moment where one of the aforementioned students was accepted to Princeton and decided to pass up going there and attend another college. This young lady saw the old halftime coach come out in me, and I coached her to rethink her initial choice and go to Princeton. In part, she did not believe she could succeed there. I knew she could. She did not believe she could be a winner. I knew she would be a champion. She graduated from Princeton and then Columbia Medical School. My last contact with her was when she was completing her residency at the University of Pennsylvania. A triple Ivy! Yes, she was bright. Yes, she was a hard worker and yes, she had the grit and determination to succeed. I am convinced that once she believed in herself success happened. She obviously chose the right path.
We also cannot forget about the covert and overt institutional racism that many of our students have to overcome. All students must be encouraged to enroll in the higher-level classes such as Honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. I believe in my heart that you could walk into many ethnically diverse schools and see almost two schools operating tangentially. The advanced classes being white and Asian, and the rest of the classes populated with African American and Hispanic students. The first thing schools must do is to eliminate any artificial barriers that eliminate students from enrolling in these upper level classes. A critical barrier is an arbitrary score on a standardized test. Failure to attain these scores precludes many of our very bright minority students from enrolling in these classes. This is a travesty and must stop at once. It is our job to identify students with potential, provide them the right teacher with a right set of high expectations, and support the students with extra programs and coach them “up”. It sounds simple, but I am convinced the biggest resistance one will receive from making these changes is the lack of belief in the students. Our system suffers from terminal disease of low expectations.
High expectations coupled with success will generate a forward-thinking momentum. High expectations can change the environment within a school and home. I remain convinced that the energy will become palpable, and success will breed success. Try it! Ratchet up your expectations. Tirelessly teach and coach your students. I am convinced more students will meet your expectations than not meet them, and for those that fall short, they will be far better off because of this journey that you have taken them on.
***In a later post, I will discuss the Dr. P. Roy Vagelos Scholars program provided by the financial and emotional support of Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, the former CEO of Merck and CO. Inc. We developed this program to nurture high expectations and help create the success talked about in this article.