What do students think ‘high expectations’ are?

We have just undertaken a maths-specific survey of students and it’s given me much to mull over. Encouraged by Harry Fletcher-Wood, I’ll dip my toe in and use it as a springboard to write some posts.

Of course, I wish I’d written and distributed the survey long ago but, like most jobs this year, I was so absorbed in imagining the multiple ways a task could be done/analysed/improved, it is only upon doing it that I’ve realised it’s not too bad and can already imagine improvements for next time.

For now, as ~18% students are yet to complete it, I’ll focus on one response that was consistently surprising: how students responded to the statement “My teacher has high expectations of me.”

The question was answered as follows:


At first glance, this looks like a big ‘YIPPEE!’ but the comments and justifications were very revealing, not only because they don’t seem to think we have high expectations of their grammar and spelling. To wit:

  • Students who seem to share, broadly, our understanding of ‘high expectations’:

i strongly agree because i got green [on target] and miss said she expected more. im able to get a blue [ahead of target] im going revise everyday

my teacher has high expectations of me, I think because she want me to acheive my target and more, also she gives me clear next steps to help me improve

because she always pushing me to climb the mounting to unerversity” [sic – also LOL at ‘mounting university’]

“because she is always trying to push me and other people with extension tasks.”

  • Students who think that high expectations are a function of current or relative performance:

I put agree because i am in group 1

I think this because she has set me a high target.(7b)”

Because I have very high targets and can achieve a lot as maths is my strongest subject

Because I am in set 1 and will do well”

  • Students who think of high expectations as the opposite of ‘underachieving’:

Because i am good” Bless this kid, I’m not sure if he means maths or life, but he is definitely good at both.

“[agree] Yes because miss was concerned and wanted to do well in my test and on parents evening I got no bad comments” (I take this to mean that ‘bad comments = low expectations, which is quite different to my own understanding)

“[neither agree nor disagree] because i really struggle and that i need more help; therefore i would need to focus on more” (I take this to mean “needing help means my teacher doesn’t expect much of me”)

“[neither agree nor disagree] Because I mess around some times.” (I take this to mean that he thinks his behaviour has lowered my expectations – little does he know it has strengthened resolve, albeit by stretching my patience.)

“[disagree] because i mostly get low marks in my tests however i do good in class”
  • Students who are mystified by the terminology:

My teacher doesn’t seem to have high expectations on me even though she might.” – this is a very serious and sweet student who clicked “strongly agree” for ‘my teacher cares about me and my progress in maths,’ suggesting that the question confused him (hopefully? I love this kid to itty bitty pieces and would be heartbroken if he thought I had low expectations of him).

because I got moved to the frount row” (What does that even MEAN???)


This leads to a theme that now seems both important and urgent, but had never crossed my mind before: do students know what it means for their teachers to have high expectations of them? We rightly spend significant amounts of time on questioning if we, as teachers, have truly high expectations and how we can translate this into the culture of our classrooms and content of our lessons; is there value in students knowing what it means and being explicitly aware of it?

When I think back to some of the most saddening conversations I had with students in my old school a common one was students who were, effectively, expressing frustration with teachers who had low expectations of them:

“He shows us movies a lot and I’m worried about not learning anything.” (many complained to me about this teacher for that reason but hadn’t the vocabulary or confidence to challenge it. For that matter, I didn’t either as he was much more influential in the school).
“He doesn’t seem to be bothered if we finish our coursework on time.”
“She just gives us worksheets about random things and sits at her desk on her phone or her computer and refuses to help.”
“All the work is way too easy. My parents had to pay for a tutor because I was so worried about falling behind.”
“We aren’t learning anything proper, I’m going to fail my exams.”
“We’ve only learned stuff I already knew about from primary school.” 
“My target is really low and even though I’m always ahead of it they won’t change it.” 
“We just do baby work and she doesn’t seem bothered.”
“We just go on laptops all the time and he isn’t even bothered if we play games.”
“There’s no point in doing homework; no one ever checks it.”

Somehow a critical part of the Y9 curriculum...

Somehow a critical part of the Y9 curriculum…

Of course, the above describes only one point of view and, although it did confirm some suspicions I had, I had not witnessed the lessons myself and hope that things were not so bad as they sound above. Nonetheless I’m sure you’ve heard, particularly in the first year or so of practice, the devastating comment “Why are we doing this? It’s too easy.”

So what value is there in students understanding ‘high expectations’ as we do? Although I am not keen on ‘student voice’ being used as a tool to pander to students’ less high-minded whims (e.g. ‘lessons should be fun’ or ‘maths should be linked to jobs’ or ‘it would be better if we could use computers more’ or ‘there shouldn’t be so much writing’ etc etc) I am very keen for students to have a vision and vocabulary to advocate for their own interests and that of their peers. There is a fairly straightforward if inelegant vocabulary for expressing the more stereotypical teenage feelings (boredom, disengagement), but the vocabulary for frustration at low expectations can sound petty or contrarian (“this work is babyish” “the teacher is lazy”), even if it is a symptom of a legitimate concern.

Of course, this leads to another challenging question: how should I explain to students what I mean by ‘high expectations’? Take, for example, the boy who wrote

“[disagree] because i mostly get low marks in my tests however i do good in class”

I take that to mean that he thinks I have low expectations of him because he routinely does badly in tests and I routinely do catch up and intervention with him and generally berate him for his failure to revise properly for assessments (we get on well, but ‘haranguing’ is the fulcrum on which the relationship turns). When I see him, how should I explain to him that I do, in fact, have very high expectations of him and wouldn’t spend so many evenings and mornings hassling him and calling his mother unless I thought he was capable of better?

A positive definition can alienate a student who doesn’t meet the expectation, leading to ‘I’m not like that, so my teacher must have low expectations of me.’ For the student above, a definition along the lines of “I expect you to always work hard and try your best in all work and assessments” means I am either disappointed or deluded (from his point of view) as he rarely meets those expectations. Is a negative definition more easily understood?

“High expectations means I am cross if you do badly in an assessment.”

“High expectations means I am disappointed for you if you don’t do well.”

“High expectations means I won’t give up or stop bugging you until you achieve your potential.” (So what does it mean if you praise anything less than perfection? That that is a student’s ‘full potential’? Hmmm…)

“High expectations means that I will always want you to work hard and be shocked if you don’t.”


I am still in the stage of wondering about this problem and have no answers, but I feel like it’s important to solve it. I would be most grateful for readers’ viewpoints and experience.

Next time, I’ll look at the responses we had from our very weakest students – they were most surprising.



Filed under Interesting or Fun

2 responses to “What do students think ‘high expectations’ are?

  1. ijstock

    Two things stand out to me here. One is that I think you are simply reflecting an almost universal truth that so many educationalists forget: children do not have the same understandings and motives as teachers. That’s why they’re them and we’re us. I suspect all you are seeing is typical immature minds at work. Our job is to try to change them into mature minds, but it doesn’t happen quickly, and most children don’t begin either to understand teacher-talk, or care very much about our concerns.

    Secondly, I don’t think that making it all more explicit will help. ‘Explaining’ high expectations is just water off the proverbial – such things need to be implicit and shining attention on them is not the way to improve them. You can no more teach high expectations than you can teach happiness. There are simply (quite a lot of) things that are better left unsaid – and that is where the profession, with its ceaseless navel-gazing often goes wrong.

  2. Reblogged this on The Cloaked and commented:
    This is what I’m talking about. Teachers, too. #StronglyAgree

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