Great Teaching.  The Power of Expectations.

Image credit: Melbourne Child Psychology 

As each new term approaches, it’s worth reflecting on the powerful Bill Rogers concept that, as teachers, ‘you establish what you establish’.  This means:

  • If we establish that we expect high standards and reinforce them continually with tight routines in lessons characterised by rigour, depth,  drive and a clear sense of purpose, that is what we get.  If we establish that we will insist on polite, respectful interactions, listening to whoever is speaking and acting in a supportive, mature fashion, then students will learn the boundaries and respond.


  • Conversely, if we establish that, despite our intentions, in reality we’ll let things go, accept mediocrity, sloppy writing, half-finished work and allow lessons to drift without addressing the behaviour issues, then that is what we get.  If we establish that calling out, ‘low-level disruption’ and rudeness will go under-challenged or only weakly addressed, these become embedded behaviours all too easily.

We establish what we establish.

Having high expectations, communicating them and reinforcing them is such a powerful feature of great teaching.  When you sweat the small stuff, make the details count; show that you really believe that excellence is possible from everyone – the pay-off is significant.  It sounds obvious but it can be easier said than done. Let’s explore the details.  Where do expectations come into play?  Here are four examples:

Behaviour management.

There are hundreds of details to this but teachers’ expectations are the absolute bedrock of creating a fertile learning environment where everyone feels safe and can engage in productive learning with a teacher firmly in control and able to lead great questioning exchanges.   There are teachers who command enormous respect from students for being someone ‘you don’t mess with’; someone whose lessons are characterised by warmth, encouragement, friendliness but also complete order, discipline and high expectations.

When you observe a teacher who has mastered this aspect of the craft, it’s interesting to note that, nearly always, their expectations are enforced at the earliest lowest levels. They’re not shouters; it’s not about being angry or over-controlling.  It’s about firm, warm, insistence:  sustained eye contact, a firm look, gesture or gentle command – keeping everyone listening, focused, attentive, picking up on drifting.  There are teachers that students don’t want to be late for, whose lessons you don’t call out in, where you definitely take all your equipment..  Not because of fear or because you’ll get a detention; but simply because it’s expected.  A teacher’s personal disapproval and ‘botheredness’ is the most significant consequence.  Of course you need to back this up with other consequences if necessary but that’s not where you start.

At the beginning of term the key is to establish the expectations with routine rehearsals: how we enter class; how we move around in the space; how we conduct questioning sessions; how we show respect for each other… all the details.  And then you have a clear framework to reference… “remember our rule – One voice” – and so on.

The pitch of the curriculum content and resources.

I”ve written about this in various blogs including The Anatomy of High Expectations and ‘Stretch and Challenge‘.  The pitch of your curriculum materials is a concrete expression of your expectations.  If you set students the task of doing a gentle intro cover page, colouring in a diagram of the safety apparatus, the message is different to setting them something with depth to it.  My son’s first homework at secondary school asked the question ‘what’s the difference between science and philosophy’.  When I was at KEGS, in Year 7, beginners’ German included a unit ‘Fun with Faust’ where they translated Mephistopheles.

If you want students to learn a poem or speech by heart, they can – but you need to expect it first.   If you want them to engage in a French conversation without using their notes, making them delve deep with their retrieval practice, they’ll respond – but if you don’t expect them to be able to do it, they never will. High expectations take form in what you ask students to read and the topics you select: never patronising; never dumbed-down.  Pitched up, bold and demanding – that’s the way to go.

Attention to detail and depth in responsive questioning.

This is an area for daily consideration.  The way you respond to students’ answers embodies your expectations.  It’s always ok for students to offer half-form responses, to be unsure or not to know something.  But….it’s not ok to leave it there.  If we expect students to know things, to form details answers and give in-depth responses, we need to lead them in that direction through probing questioning and the ‘say it again better’ strategy explored in the previous post on questioning.   If you accept poor answers without response or simply flit from student to student getting bits and pieces of responses,  you set a low standard for the depth of thinking.  If you always probe, go deeper and insist on higher quality answers as a follow-up, you set a standard that students aspire to.  For me, this shift is one of the most significant in teaching:  something you do every single day to drive up standards in learning at a fundamental level.

The standards of student work.  Quality, volume, depth

As with questioning, setting expectations in terms of students’ work output is essential. Unless you spell it out in advance, you leave them to guess.  It pays to explore this upfront. “If you do work that I think is awesome, what will it look like?” Setting out the parameters for length, depth and key features of what excellence looks like is extremely helpful as a guide.

But then you need to respond to what you get.  If you don’t seem bothered about hand-writing, joined and on the lines and fullstops and capital letters,  it deteriorates.  If you don’t insist on ruled lines and pencils for diagrams, it falls away.  If you don’t insist that maths problems are set out with a new line for each step, attention to columns and giving quantities with the correct units,  these details cease to be routine.

If the first draft is unacceptable — doing it again is a powerful first step to setting standards

If I ask my children about the teachers they’ve loved and respected, for sure there is a correlation to those who set high expectations.  It’s a powerful motivator; the teacher is bothered; they believe in you; they know you can achieve excellence – and, yes, they’re unashamedly demanding about it.





  1. A really interesting post. I remember being amazed when I started setting higher expectations that students suddenly raised their game too! It’s a kind of magic, and it transforms our own behaviour too as teachers. When we expect more, we teach in a different way, we speak in a different way, we plan in a better way. And they learn in a much, much better way! Best wishes, Michael


  2. […] I am often told one of my strengths is my enthusiasm for my subject. It is intrinsic and flows through everything I do at school. However, when it comes to parents’ evenings and open evenings I notch it up even further. It would be disingenuous to call it a performance, but I certainly emphasise to parents how much I care about their child’s learning, the subject and enforcing high expectations. […]


  3. Great article. You are right about how the best teachers set expectations. As a regular recipient of detentions, I can say that there were certainly teachers that I did not want to disappoint.

    Liked by 1 person

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