Communicate High Expectations

By John Saphier
February 2017, Volume 40, Issue 6

Four decades ago, social psychologist Jeff Howard hit the ground running in Massachusetts with the message, “Smart is not something you are; smart is something you can get.” Convincing teachers they can help their students to develop their ability—the idea that ability is malleable and that achievement is grounded in effort—has always been a hard sell. Teachers who are willing to confront their own beliefs and guide their daily actions using the growth mindset can make stunning progress in narrowing the achievement gap.

One way to confront these beliefs is to look in detail at the subtle but powerful ways in which we consistently communicate our own views about our students’ abilities with the language we choose, such as how we respond to their requests for help. Say a student asks for help. A teacher who communicates belief in students’ ability to grow might respond as follows:


Student: I can’t do number four.
Teacher: What part don’t you understand? [“Part” implies there are parts the student does understand.] Student: I just can’t do it.
Teacher: Well, I know you can do part of it, because you’ve done the first three problems correctly. [Explicit expression of confidence.] The fourth problem is similar but just a little harder. [Acknowledges difficulty.] You start out the same, but then you have to do one extra step. [Gives a cue.] Review the first three problems, and then start number four again and see if you can figure it out. [Provides a strategy.] I’ll come by your desk in a few minutes to see how you’re doing. [I’ll be back and follow through to make sure you succeed.]

A teacher who doesn’t really care, or who cares but doesn’t believe the student has the ability, might respond as follows:


Student: I can’t do number four.
Teacher: You can’t? Why not? [A vapid question. If the student knew why he couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t be stuck.]
Student: I just can’t do it.
Teacher: Don’t say you can’t do it. We never say we can’t do it. [The teacher may want to urge perseverance, but instead moralizes about the student’s difficulty with the problem.] Did you try hard? [That’s a no-win question. What if he did? Must be dumb. What if he didn’t? Then he’s a slug.]
Student: Yes, but I can’t do it.
Teacher: Well, you did the first three problems. Maybe if you went back and worked a little longer you could do the fourth problem, too. [So, working longer and harder with the same inadequate strategies might somehow magically work?] Why don’t you work at it a little more and see what happens? [So maybe there will be a miracle. Not likely. I’m out of here.]

None of the parenthetical messages in the scripts are communicated explicitly, but they are embedded in the teacher’s choice of language. We should be aware of a dozen other recurring scenarios in classroom life in which we have the opportunity to convey belief in our students’ abilities and build their confidence and success.

Adapted from “The Principal’s Role in High Expectations Teaching,” By John Saphier. Principal, January/February 2017.

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