Communicating Expectations

Posted by Susan Wall on May 30, 2018
Topics: Positive Classroom Culture

We’ve heard it all before – if we want our students to succeed, we must have high expectations of them. This is all well and good, but how do I communicate my expectations to students so that they will get the message that 1) What they are doing is important, 2) They can indeed do it, and 3) The teacher won’t give up on them? (Saphier, Haley-Speca and Gower, 262)

In The Skillful Teacher, Saphier, Haley-Speca and Gower outline 4 different categories for standards of performance:

  • Quality and quantity of work (those characteristics that make a piece of work acceptable)
  • Work habits and work procedures (how students go about doing their work, following instructions, bell work, etc.)
  • Business and housekeeping routines (non-academic work-related procedures like keeping the room clean, taking attendance, etc.)
  • Interpersonal behavior (how students behavior towards one another and towards the teacher) (p.263-264)

It is important to recognize that the teacher must address each of the above categories in order to achieve the desired standards. For example, communicating expectations regarding quality and quantity of work will not ensure that students achieve standards in work habits and work procedures. Once the teacher establishes which are the most important expectations in each category, the next step is for the teacher to communicate them explicitly, specifically and repeatedly.

Saphier, Haley-Speca and Gower outline 11 behaviors that are common among teachers who achieve successful standards in their classrooms:

  1. Direct communication. Say it, write it or provide a visual model – best to do all three – but don’t expect that giving the student a “look” will be enough. Teachers must tell students directly and actively what they expect from them.
  2. Specific communication. Spell out the details of exactly what it is that you want. For example, “I want you to skip a line between your title and your first paragraph. Like this…”
  3. Repeated communication. Students have so much information to remember. If you want them to remember it, repeat it – over and over again. Have the students repeat it back to you as well!
  4. Positive expectancy. Tell the students, “Of course you can do it!”
  5. Modeling. Yes, provide examples. But teachers also need to show students that they follow the same expectations that they set for their students.
  6. Personal contact. The more face-to-face interactions that you can have with your students, the better. This can happen in class, after class, at lunch, in the hallway, etc. These do not need to be long interactions. A simple statement like, “Hey Sarah, I’m looking forward to seeing your revised essay this afternoon” can go a long way.
  7. No excuses. Explain to students in advance under what conditions work will be accepted late (for example, you may give extensions for sickness or family emergencies). Apart from those pre-stated conditions, if the work is due on Tuesday, then the work is due on Tuesday. Hold students accountable for their actions regardless of the excuse. I like to say, “I’m so sorry that your computer wasn’t working last night. I’m sure that was very difficult for you to get your homework done for other classes as well. Make sure that you turn it in tomorrow for half credit.” It can all be said with an empathetic smile – there is no anger needed; this is the teacher communicating to the student that the teacher cares about the students enough to hold them responsible.
  8. Recognizes superior performance or significant gains over past performance. Highlight student accomplishments – post excellent work on the bulletin board, give a public compliment, etc. But keep in mind the personality of individual students – if your student will be embarrassed by a public compliment, by all means keep it private! I like to ask students for their permission before making public displays of their work.
  9. Logical consequences. The teacher should communicate consequences to students in advance. These consequences should not be punitive; rather, they should be intended to help the student succeed. Examples of logical consequences include going to a homework club or having a lunch meeting with the teacher to revise a poor assignment.
  10. Tenacity. When a student forgets to see you during study hall, go get him/her! But be careful – students must also take responsibility for their own success. You must judge on an individual basis which students could really benefit and “take off” from your initial push, and which ones need to step up and take more personal responsibility.
  11. Feedback – It should be prompt and detailed. Instead of “Great job, Jake!” try “I like how you provide specific evidence to support your thesis statement.”

When communicating expectations to students, remember to be specific, stay calm (it’s not about your feelings; it’s about acting as an educator) and be direct in your speech and actions. And most importantly, enjoy your classroom successes!

Work Cited:
Saphier, Jon, Mary Ann Haley-Speca and Robert Gower. The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills. Massachusetts: Research for Better Teaching, Inc., 2008.

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