5 Simple Ways to Raise Academic Expectations in Your Classroom

In a post earlier this month, I went over the research showing that a teacher’s high academic standards and expectations result in student success.

I always knew high standards work intuitively. My best teachers—the strict-as-nothing English, music, and karate teachers—all pushed me to new heights. They expected and demanded new heights, and I jumped up to deliver.

Now that I’m a teacher, I teach the same way.

Through observation and the reading of research, I’ve found the five secrets of high expectations teachers that any teacher can follow.

This year, I personally used these techniques to raise academic standards in my classroom.

My grade nine English class students, who wrote me anonymous letters of feedback on our last class together, offered the students’ perspective on these high standards techniques. l think you’ll be interested to read what they wrote (I was definitely surprised).

5 SIMPLE WAYS  YOU CAN RAISE ACADEMIC EXPECTATIONS AND STANDARDS

  1. Tell your students you expect them to achieve at a high standard, and tell them this often.

At the start of the year, I set an ambitious goal for our class. I said, “I expect that each one of you will attain an excellent score on the Provincial Achievement Test exam at the end of the year. I know that you’re all capable if you put in the effort and ask questions. I’m going to help you in any way I can to achieve an excellent score. I am also going to teach you writing skills you will use in high school and university, so I expect that you will pay attention and take notes.”

The highest exam score possible for each student in my class—including ESL students—is not merely ambitious, but some would say delusional.

But by setting this goal we had something as a class to work towards. I constantly referred to it. Students began to refer to it. I’m happy to say that most my students had excellent scores on the written business letter/essay exam.

Starting the year off with this bold goal has two effects: 1) It shows my students I believe they can reach high standards, and 2) It tells my students that I will support them in that endeavour. When students feel respected and supported, they are more likely to achieve, and they are more likely to later understand why I am strict and demanding.

What my students said…

“I thank you for your determination to make us all better writers”

“Encouraging all of us to do well and improve our weaknesses is one of the best traits of a teacher and you did amazing at that.”

“I felt like you wanted the whole class to succeed, including me.”

 

  1. Be strict. Expect only excellent academic and social behaviour.

To achieve excellent results, it’s incredibly important to be strict. When you are strict, you treat class time as sacred. You will not have students interrupt your lesson, students turn up habitually late, or habitually without homework.

Yes, some students will hate you for being strict.

But the alternative lackadaisical approach yields mediocre results from students who come to class late, talk out of turn, don’t do the practice, and have an inflated sense of self-importance. Trust me on this one. I have been that clueless, lackadaisical teacher who did not teach my students well.

What my students said…

“I would like to comment on your classroom environment…Personally, I believe you were the most effective teacher who has taught me. Your strict rules at the beginning of the year really helped us stay quiet and ready to learn throughout the year. Once we entered your class, we as a whole class improved as if we were a new class.”

 “You bombarded us with rules and guidelines at the start of the year that I was not in favour of. But now, I have learned to be polite in class. I have learned to not interrupt, to participate in class discussions, and to always be ready to answer unexpected questions.”

“Your strict rules (compared to other teachers) helped create a calm learning environment. Although the classes were not fun, I learned everything easily and in-depth.”

 

  1. Assign meaningful homework and use it in class.

Eschew busywork, but embrace homework that matters. To write a good essay, for example, students needed to be proficient paragraph writers. I made them practice paragraph writing constantly—paragraphs for weeknight homework, paragraphs in class, paragraphs on the weekend.

When my students came to class, we shared our homework paragraphs, discussed our paragraphs, and, as a class, analyzed the best paragraphs. It was tiring—and believe me, they complained—but the practice paid off. It is because of this payoff that you will frequently hear me telling my students, “Practice makes perfect.” 

What my students said…

“I felt intellectually challenged in your classroom because you pushed me to do my homework. Moreover, I understand why you made us do it because you wanted us to succeed.” 

“I liked the way you would teach us a lesson and then give us homework. The homework really helped me make sure I got the topic. At the beginning of the year, I did not like the homework, but now I know I see that it has truly paid off.”

“Even though I had a hard time in your class, you taught me more than any other LA teacher I have ever had. The daily paragraphs, though hard to get used to, were very valuable and good for learning what I was to expect in high school.”

 

  1. Assign challenging projects that push students and develop useful skills.

Many of my students expect Language Arts 9 to be heavy on the arts and light on the language, a kind of English Lite 101. In English Lite 101 there is a lot of collage- making, character drawing, and creative expression using pencil crayons, markers, and colourful paper.

The line between art and language arts is clearly drawn in my mind and immovable: in my class, there were no light projects which required primarily artistic talent, but there were only hard projects which required primarily writing and thinking ability.

 Students were not pleased with this situation at first. When their book projects consisted of pages and pages of writing—and analysis of symbols, themes, figurative language, words, and more—they were not keen. Some protested. Where were the pictures?! Where were the dioramas of yore?! Where were the delightful frills and glitter pens they so loved as grade eights?!

What my students said…

“I am really grateful you were my English teacher, for you really pushed me.”

“I learned a lot from you this year, but at the cost of my sanity at some points in time.”

“I thought the projects this year were quite challenging and time-consuming, but they prepared me for future projects and subjects.”

“I would like to start by saying this year I learned a lot. I found your teaching very helpful and useful. I thoroughly enjoyed the projects and assignments even if they kept me up till 2 am in the morning.”

 

  1. Make everyone participate in class discussions. 

After reading Teach Like a Champion, I immediately adopted most of his high expectations practices, including the “no-opt out” strategy.

At the beginning of the year, I had each student write his or her name on a popsicle stick. I put these popsicle sticks in a cup, and when it was time for class discussion, I would keep the cup in my hand. I would ask a question, give students some time to think of answer alone or with their seat partners, and then pull a popsicle stick out at random and call on that student.

If the student I called on said, “I don’t know” in response to my question, then I expected him or her to know and share the answer to the same question by the end of the class. Once another randomly selected student had answered the question correctly, I would return to the “I don’t know” student for the right answer. As a result, no student could “opt-out” from class discussion by 1) not raising his or her hand or 2) claiming he or she “doesn’t know” the answer.

Of course, students don’t like the popsicle sticks if they are shy. However, the real world will not shield the shy students from speaking in public; a little tension helps motivate students to learn; I give them some time to think of an answer before cold calling.

What my students said…

“Having popsicle sticks to draw names is a great idea. Using popsicle sticks gives students who don’t usually answer a chance to show their understanding of a topic. Also, if you do not, it is a prime opportunity to ask questions.”

“You should definitely keep the popsicle sticks.”

 

I don’t claim to have invented any of these high standards and expectations techniques. They were shared with me by master teachers or by other teacher bloggers out there.

If you want to improve achievement and student respect in your classroom next year, why not take the road less travelled—set your expectations high and tell your students; assign homework; assign cerebral projects; expect 100% participation in class discussion; be strict.

You can do this,

Stop Stressing About Teaching–It’s Never Worth It

 At my father’s funeral on a rainy day twelve years ago, the church was nearly empty and only two people cried.

My mom and I cried, and everyone else present stood dry-eyed, unperturbed, that a man who had lived 42 years on this Earth would be buried under mud.

But I don’t blame them. I know why they didn’t cry.

My dad was a man of integrity. But when he died in an accident, he was a shadow of his former self.

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Are You Tough Enough to Teach?

Everybody and his pet rabbit wants to become a teacher. Around this time of year, at least three students tell me they want to become teachers. Later in the year, I often discover, more future teachers pop out of the woodwork.

With eyes that seem to look towards a utopia, these students tell me they want to teach. They tell me they want to share their love of Shakespeare. Biochemistry. The finer points of geography. And they want to inspire. They want to, through their gentle lovingness, spark the latent fire of intelligence and humanity in teenagers obsessed with spinners and dabs.

Some of my wannabe teacher students have less than noble intentions. They want summer vacations. They want to lecture from behind a desk.  They don’t know what else to do. These students – and the way they imagine teaching to be—make me laugh.

What I want to ask these future teacher students, but never do, because I don’t want to stomp on their dreams is this:

Are you tough enough to teach?”

That is the question no one asks.

Years ago, I thought that all I needed to be a great teacher was passion and love.

But I was wrong, and someone should have told me:

To be a great teacher, you must be tough.

If you want to be a teacher, ask yourself: Am I tough enough to teach?

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How I Marked 63 Multiple-Choice Tests in 6 Minutes

Do you feel like you’re drowning in marking?

Do you look at a pile of multiple choice tests and groan at the thought of marking each one of them—A, B, C, or D?

These tests, book reports, essays, and paragraphs all pile up on your desk until it’s a fire hazard and your own life is all but swallowed.

If you’re like me, marking overload happens throughout the year, but especially around report card time.

Here in Canada, report cards comments and pre-exam grades are due on Monday. So, Friday was stay-at-school-till-9pm-marking-and-eating-pizza-day!

Even after marking for hours in the staff room on Friday, writing report card comments, and numbing my sorrows with pizza, diet coke, and cinnamon sticks, I still brought marking home.

Sound familiar?

I hate to complain. I love my job. But I hate marking.

In the first few years of my teaching career, I worked hard on improving my classroom management and my lesson planning. And my research made a huge difference. I am not a whipping girl of any classes. I’m pleased with my students’ results.

This next school year, my # 1 goal is to cut down my marking time by at least 50%. I will not mark away my weekends.

If you and I continue marking and lesson planning all Sunday every Sunday, I know we will become a statistic – between 40%-50% of teachers burn out and leave teaching, and for most of them, excessive workload is the primary cause.

So, when a teacher at my school told me about Zip Gradea software that transformed her cell phone into a multiple-choice test scanner and marker she claimed marked her tests in minutes—I scrambled to get it. I’m so excited to share it with you because it made me so happy to mark those 63 multiple choice tests within 6 minutes (I timed myself—this same marking would usually have taken me 45 minutes at least!).   

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Research Says High Academic Expectations Work (And Your Students Want Them)

Back in high school, Sandra and I would hang out at lunch and swap our homework and our essays. And then we would edit in red ink on them for the fun of it.

The other girls wouldn’t bother us because they were at the mall buying Twizzlers from Bulk Barn, smoking Marlboros and spitting in the woods, or in the wild searching for boys.

Our kind of boys were so good at math they became school tutors. They, like us, stayed at school for lunch. And so, our high school lunches were spent primarily in libraries. There we edited our papers into shiny, beautiful things to hand to our teachers, or in the math rooms crunching numbers that we hoped would turn into a Pride and Prejudice– style love affair.

The numbers never were in our favour.

We may have miscalculated the probability of finding love among the math tutors, but at least we pleased our parents. Both children of immigrants—Sandra’s Chinese, and I’m Polish—we knew the importance of getting good grades. If we got good grades, our parents let us out of the house.

We made fun of our parents’ strictness. Sandra’s mom once locked her into her room to study. Each year, my parents bought me books of the What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know-style— a great “hobby for summer” my parents called these books. And then there was my mother, who made me write paragraphs explaining why I should be allowed to leave to parties and other events—if the paragraphs were good, I could go.

Both Sandra and I graduated at the top our class, won scholarships, and went to the universities of our choice. And I could write killer paragraphs.

Looking back, I’m convinced that we graduated at the top of our class not because we were better or smarter than the others.  But we desperately wanted to be better and smarter. And we wanted to be better and smarter because of our parents.

By expecting and demanding nothing but the best from them, immigrant parents give their children a priceless gift: the gift of high academic expectations.

We as teachers, in loco parentis, have the same power. In our classrooms, we can set expectations of our students. We can expect them all to learn and perform challenging tasks, or we can expect only some of them to succeed at easier tasks.

If you think you could raise your academic expectations, but you don’t know if it’s worth it or necessary, read on.

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You’re Not “Just” a Teacher–Self-Respect for Teachers 101

It’s the little things that chip away at your sense of self-respect as a teacher. The parent that screams at you over the phone at the end of the day because you disciplined his child. The parent who, across the table at a parent-teacher interview, tells you how to teach writing.  Another parent who has a gripe with you, and instead of talking with you, emails your principal.  The child who says, “My mom said that those who can’t do, teach.”  The strangers who call your job “glorified babysitting.” Or the child you tutor who tells you that in his home country, he had two teachers who he called servants.

Yes, all of this has happened to me.

I can imagine you have experienced these moments too. You have been treated by adults and children alike like a dirty rag to be pushed around. I know other teachers have been treated with disrespect because their words and actions are telling. All of it may have even made you reconsider teaching and made you say things like this:

“I’m just a teacher.”

I have to stop you there. You’re not just a teacher. You are a teacher. You direct, guide, scold, and embolden the future. You encourage the gutless in the gutters. You set high standards your students cannot even envision. You rile kids up and take bullies down. You make speeches and promises and you deliver. You analyze novels and poems so deeply that these poems and novels—and even parts of life—become understood.

 You are a teacher. That is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is nothing to hide.

To develop self-respect as a teacher, teach louder.

Don’t let anyone treat you like a dirty rag. Dress like a modern-day queen or king. Every day, prepare yourself for school. Iron your button-up shirt so firmly that the iron lines show on the arms. Starch your pants and brush the kinks out of your hair. Shine your shoes and look down in them to see your precious teacher face.

You are a teacher.

Respect yourself, and the rest will follow.

 

Please, Please, Please, for the Love of God– Dare to Be a Strict Teacher

I am a strict teacher.

If your child is in my class I have certain expectations for him or her. I expect him to be on time; I expect him to have his materials with him—no, he will not have time to visit his locker for paper and a pen; I expect him to be respectful and say “please” and “thank you”; I expect him to stay seated and quiet during my lesson—yes, I have a seating plan; I expect him to raise his hand when he wishes to speak—I would like to hear him speak; I expect him to have his homework done—yes, I assign and check homework; I expect him to clean up after himself; I expect him to never trash talk any student in my care; I expect him to put his cell phone away or kiss it goodbye;  I expect him not to whine, but to work.

I expect a lot from him.

Because I am a strict teacher, I have a lot of expectations.

Because I am a strict teacher, my expectations are often met.

Because I am a strict teacher, my students, in the process of meeting expectations, become better.

 All of this because I am strict.

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7 Tips for Beating End-Of-Year Teacher Burnout

It’s that time of the year when a dry erase marker that won’t work or first block without your morning coffee is enough to flip your normally jovial, light-hearted self into a snarling, spitting cat.

Welcome to the end of the school year, where the survivors are few and the wounded many. You have made it through the morass of the school year—avoided the grenades, crouched low, staked out your territory—and made it to the other side of the trenches. This is no man’s land, but you—and a few other teachers who remain relatively sane—have nearly made it.

Now what?

Any armchair psychologist need only survey your wrinkled teacher garb and your matted, knotted hair to identify your condition: end-of-year teacher burnout. But it takes a teacher who has been there and done that, one who has gained a degree in armchair psychology from The School of Life to advise a burnt-out teacher what to do about it.

While I may not a master’s or PhD, I do hold that precious degree from The School of Life, and here is what I know about end-of-year teacher burnout. 

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14 tips for surviving the first year of teaching– a letter to my first year teacher self

When I was a first year teacher now nearly five years ago, I knew as much about teaching as I do about the types of clouds or the kinds of rocks: I had a vague recollection of learning facts about these things in school long, long ago, but put me in a rock museum or ask me to describe the clouds above my eyeballs, and I’d be stumped.

As a first year teacher, my knowledge of teaching was academic. In teachers’ college, I had been fed from a trough of fun, impractical theories; I had viewed classroom simulations comprised of perfectly behaved adults who playfully mimicked rebellious teenagers; I drank Starbucks lattes and sucked on bonbons as my professors talked about creativity, fun, and social justice.  In short, I had no idea what hell awaited me.

Here is my practical advice for first year teachers.

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How to be the best student teacher ever

HOW TO BE THE BEST STUDENT TEACHER EVER

Four years. I cannot believe it has been four years since I wrote a blog post.

A lot has happened in my teaching career over the past four years. I moved schools. I now primarily teach English. I’ve read some transformative teaching books. and I’ve recently been inspired by a teacher Youtuber and a great teacher blogger. But none of this compares to having the whole circle of life turned upside down and belly up when I  became a mentor teacher to two student teachers.

Two student teachers!

Two days ago was the last day with my second student teacher, who was a pleasure to have in my classroom. For all of you education majors gearing up for student teaching, let me tell you what my latest student teacher did to be the best student teacher ever.

MY TOP 10 TIPS FOR STUDENT TEACHERS

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