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,