Many teachers believe they know how much their students can learn. Rather than being based on the actual skills of the students in question, these beliefs are often formed from other sources of information. They might come from discussions that they have held with other teachers about students in their class, the number of students they are teaching who are involved in “pull-out programs,” the level of the class as listed on the course information sheet for high school teachers, or even personal biases about students in general.
If a teacher walks into a classroom with the attitude that the students cannot learn the material for the course, the battle is lost before it has begun. Low expectations serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in lower student achievement and interest. On the other hand, if a teacher believes that the students can learn the material, then the students will pick up on this, and it too will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your Attitude and Demeanor
Students are very smart at picking up the nuances of individual teachers and their opinions. If you truly believe that all the students in your class can learn the material required for the course, then your attitude and demeanor will reflect that belief.
Teachers with high expectations typically smile more, joke more, and encourage more. They have a “can-do” attitude and probably achieve more in their own lives, too. Students who have high expectations for themselves end up believing in their own ability to learn. No student wants to feel dumb, but when teachers do not offer the opportunity to achieve, some students do start to feel inferior.
High Expectations or Unrealistic Demands?
High expectations are necessary and they result in positive achievement, But impossible expectations set students up to fail. This is an important distinction.
Many difficult concepts rely on background knowledge and previous academic experience. If a student has not successfully completed a required prerequisite for the course you are teaching, she doesn't have the tools she needs to succeed. It would be impossible to expect her to master the concepts without much remediation. For example, if a child does not understand the basics of addition, they cannot be expected to comprehend multiplication. Similarly, if she has never studied algebra, then she will have a difficult time with some concepts in chemistry.
The students who are the worst hurt by impossible expectations are those of low ability and low achievement. Many of these students already have self-esteem problems. However, these same students' self-esteem can benefit greatly from high, yet attainable, expectations.
Do not assume, however, that this student cannot learn. Instead, try to think of ways to help this child get the required knowledge. If you are an elementary school teacher, you should schedule a conference with a parent or guardian so that they understand the difficulties their child is facing. You might offer additional resources like learning aids and possibly even after-school tutoring.
In secondary school, a student who skipped over or failed a course could be placed back in that course for the remainder of the year if the problem is recognized early. If a student needs tutoring, most schools offer teacher or student tutoring at various times. Just remember, your attitude about the student's situation will form her attitude about whether she has the ability to learn.
It is also imperative that you base your expectations on the group of students you are teaching. Elementary school teachers typically have testing results to help them determine the general ability of their students, which can guide the amount of time spent on foundational topics. High schools generally offer regular, honors, and even advanced placement courses in a subject to meet the needs of different students. Your expectation should be that all students enrolled in your course will learn the information you are going to present in a manner suitable to their ability.