Leadership / First Year of Teaching / Best Practice

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.

Good luck.


***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.

First Year of Teaching / Leadership/ Mentoring

First Year of Teaching / Leadership / Best Practice

Are you “that” teacher?

 This past weekend I had the wonderful experience of going to see a group of mostly middle school aged children perform instrumental musical selections at a local mall.  As they were setting up, I focused my attention on the instructor, his activities, and the way he interacted with the students.  Needless to say, I was quite moved at what I saw and felt a need to share.

It was clear to me that there was a very special type of relationship established between these youngsters and the teacher.  They followed his directions, knew what they were supposed to do, and completed all of their pre-performance tasks in an orderly way.  All of this was done in a very hectic, noisy, and distracting shopping mall filled with holiday shoppers.  Throughout this process, I watched the instructor haul and set up heavy equipment, interact with each student individually, talk to many parents as they arrived, and gather the group together to share some final pre-game reminders and provide that final pre-game pep talk. All of this was done with a smile on the face of the teacher and a smile and laughter on the face of the students. There was never a voice raised.  Additionally, he had to handle minor distractions such as forgotten music, instrument repair, chair arrangement, and ensuring enough electricity for the ensemble. He did this all calmly with a very happy demeanor.

It was obvious to me that for these youngsters this teacher was “that teacher”. In my career, I have seen this over and over again.  This obvious connection most often occurs with the band or choral director, dance teacher, theater teacher, yearbook advisor, or athletic coach.  I have also seen this type of rapport with an Advanced Placement Chemistry teacher.  Many times, I had to escort this group out of the building in order for the night crew to clean.  In all of these cases, let us not forget that these teachers put in all of these hours for very little or no extra compensation.  They sacrifice their own personal lives and that of their families for their students.  The teacher spends many extra hours with their students.

I would bet that for everyone reading this article we became educators because of a relationship that we had with “that” teacher while we were in school.  I know for me it was a music teacher and a specific athletic coach.  These individuals had more career influence on me than my parents or any other adult.  And I am happy to say that I came from a family of loving, caring, and perhaps overly involved parents.

So how do you become “that” teacher?  You know the special teacher that becomes the very significant adult in a young person’s life.  Although most times it is unsaid, you possess the following qualities:

  • You are truly interested in the them.
  • You are there for them when perhaps no one else is available.
  • You listen to what they are saying.
  • You provide direction and support and at times are demanding and tough when you have to be. But you are also forgiving and supportive.
  • You are honest with them.
  • You are trustworthy.
  • You are friendly and compassionate.
  • You are willing to give your time.

I also argue that most teachers never realize that they had become “that” teacher to any individual student.  I will also argue that they never set out to become “that” teacher.  It just happens.  For each student and for each individual teacher, it is probably a very different experience.

For me, it was the teachers who nurtured my desire to be successful on a given task.  They treated me with respect.  They put the extra time in, and they provided me very positive feedback.  I would have run through a wall for these teachers. I can also easily recall after all of these years the personal devastation I felt as a sixteen-year-old student when my coach, who was “that” teacher, left prior to my senior year.  I also vividly recall and still feel sadness and loss to this day when I found out as an adult that one of my special teachers was nothing but a big fraud who deceived each one of us and actually turned out to be a monster.

I also share the story from someone very close to me that a ninth-grade Algebra teacher was that person for her.  This teacher allowed this student to come before and after school, during lunch and free periods to help her in her room.  The student was allowed to grade papers, to do organizational chores, and really just be there.  In turn, this teacher talked with her, respected her, and was a stable guiding force at an age when every child needs an adult.  For this student, at this time, her home life was in a bit of an upheaval and this teacher provided the needed stability in this student’s life.  The impact that this teacher had on this student was significant and remarkable.  And it helped shape her and guide her.

Many years later, I shared this story with the teacher.  Not surprisingly, she never knew or realized how important she was and that what she was doing was anything special.  The teacher was just being herself.  That is who an educator should be.

Maybe that is the moral to this story.  As teachers, coaches, directors, or principals we never realize the impact that we have on students.  In many cases these are life-altering relationships.  Although one might argue, that you are either that person or not, I will argue that you can personally work on some of the qualities mentioned above.  You also can’t force this relationship.  It has to just happen.  I encourage you to be honest, listen, do the extra, and just be there for your students.  You could be a life changer or maybe a life saver!!


First Year of Teaching

First Year of Teaching

Last minute reminders

The time has finally come.  All of your preparation has been worth it.  You may have been waiting for this day from the time you were a little child playing school.  You have navigated your undergraduate program, completed your student teaching, passed all licensure exams, and now have successfully secured your first job.  Your students will be arriving any day now.

I hope you have read some of my past articles and have begun to process some of my advice.  I also hope you have reached out to some experienced teachers and have gotten a good idea of what you can expect.  I am optimistic that your formal mentorship has begun.  Relax!  But relax only for a brief moment inasmuch as your journey is just beginning.

As you think about the first day, keep the following ideas in mind:

  • First impressions are critical. Students are inclined to make up their minds very quickly about their new teacher.  You get no “do-overs” or second chances.  Your first impression matters greatly when you deal with the entire cross section of people you will meet.  Of course, this includes your students, their parents, and your colleagues.  Please make sure you are well dressed, well prepared, well organized, and articulate in your conversations.  Speak slowly and clearly and look people in their eyes when you talk.  When speaking to the whole class, do not fixate your stare on the back wall. Recall your best practice public speaking skills.
  • Treat everyone with respect. Students especially need to feel respected and valued.  Communication breakdowns will usually occur when one feels disrespected or de-valued.  This feeling does not necessarily have to be true.  If the perception exists, it is just as damaging.
  • Treat students in a friendly manner. However, believe me when I tell you, they do not need more friends.  I hope you see the difference.  They need a teacher.  It is crucial that you establish clear boundaries and never cross them.  New secondary school teachers, because of the narrow age difference, may feel the need to be the “cool” teacher and the students’ pal.  If you feel this way, you are headed for trouble.  Although I encourage you to empower students and give them voice in their class, you must still be the authority figure in the classroom.  Students hate it when a teacher allows a student to hijack the class.  Although they might find it on the surface humorous, they resent the intrusion in their learning time.
  • Relationships matter. If you have read any of my other articles, you know how important this concept is.  Education is all about how one navigates the relationships they build.  It is critical that you work hard to establish respectful, positive, supportive, and appropriate relationships.
  • Please be consistent. Do what you say and mean what you say.  Think before you speak and do not threaten the class with idle threats.  This may work one time, but the class will soon see through this charade.  Inconsistency will quickly put you on the road to failure.
  • Work hard to connect with your parents. Parents should not be feared.  You should not feel intimidated by parents.  Work to build a supportive relationship. There is that word again.  Do you think by now that relationships are important?  Make a point to reach out to your mentor to get some sound ideas and advice on this subject.  I will delve deeper on this topic in future articles.
  • Prior to the first day, make sure you know your building and know the specific critical procedures. Work extremely hard at establishing a very positive rapport with the principal’s secretary and the head custodian.  They both possess important knowledge and can allow you access to people, products and facilities.  Do not take these people lightly.  They are extremely important in the hierarchy of a school.
  • Work to ensure that students are busy every minute. Use time wisely, and do not waste it.  Students having idle time will create enormous problems for you.  Have every moment well planned and have back up plans in your head.  Prepare creative and student centered ways to review procedural and perhaps mundane tasks. This may give you a perfect opportunity to foreshadow your teaching style and techniques. They may learn within the first few minutes of the class what the year will be like.  You will never get this day back!
  • Remember that you are new and when dealing with colleagues see and hear a lot but say very little. Please do not infer that I want you to isolate yourself.  Quite the opposite is true.  Find your “marigolds” (see prior posts).  Stay off social media sites.  You could put something in writing that you will regret.  Do not gossip or talk about students or staff.  Do not denigrate your school and district.  Watch what you put in e-mails.  Do not use your school e-mail for personal use.  Never put anything in writing when you are emotionally upset or angry.  Read your message three times before you push the send button.
  • Make sure your lessons are exciting and engaging. In general, we tend to do a very good job of boring our students to death.  Try to avoid an over reliance on handouts.  Can you teach the concept without creating a handout?  Last year I visited a classroom, and there were 12 handouts lined up on a table ready for distribution. As a parent, when I go to open up my child’s backpack, I do not want to be overwhelmed by a potpourri of handouts.  I encourage all principals to institute a handout free day.  I like to think on those days teaching will improve.
  • Work to maintain an appropriate life /work balance. New teachers can burn out very quickly.  You must maintain your life outside of school.  Although you are enthused and committed to your students, do not get consumed by it.  Maintain your friends, outside relationships, and activities that give you pleasure.  Go visit the gym.  Exercise will do wonders for you.  Eat right.  Get the right amount of sleep.  Have fun at home and in school.


Good luck and have a great year.