A culture of high academic expectations in the classroom does not come from only the teacher – in fact, I would say it can’t! If the learners don’t have high academic expectations of themselves, they will never reach their academic and personal goals. So how do educators create the conditions that allow for engaging, rigorous, inspiring, and fully inclusive learning? One way is to involve the learners in everything that happens in the classroom.
I believe the presence of a strong culture that supports learner agency is the first step toward creating high academic expectations. If the learners don’t have the expectations for themselves, how can we possibly cajole it out of them? It starts with setting the classroom/school expectations with the learners, not for the learners.
Classroom rules, expectations, what the learners need to do to keep a safe, functioning environment— all of these things can be set up with the learners and not by only the teachers. Why take the valuable time away from academics to spend time discussing classroom expectations with learners (and maybe even end up with exactly the same norms you might have had you designed them by yourself)? The answer is that the learners will now hold themselves accountable for their decisions in the classroom. The rules and expectations were designed and discussed by them, so when they do something out of bounds, they can work with each other to make it whole.
The power dynamic of teacher vs learner goes away at that point, and they become partners in their learning. This can happen at every level, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. Once the environment is set up by the learners, the academic learning can begin. The procedures have already been decided by the learners: What happens when the teacher is busy and I need help? What is the procedure to go to the bathroom? How do we line up for lunch? What happens during independent work time and small group time? All these questions have been discussed, decided upon, and posted for all to see.
These questions may seem like trivial things to decide ahead of time, but they’re actually critically important if you want learners in their desks and learning. Across the country, learners are being suspended or permanently removed from schools because of relatively minor infractions and breaking of school rules. Disproportionately learners suspended or expelled are learners of color. We need those learners to stay in our classrooms and schools if they’re going to be successful in college and their future careers. When learners have help to articulate the classroom norms, when they set the expectations themselves, when they’re clear on what is and is not in-bounds in your classroom, then all learners have a feeling in the classroom that their voices are heard and accepted, and that the teacher has created the conditions for learning. There will be trust between the learner and the teacher, and there will be more “buy-in” by the learner as a result. We all know that relationships matter, but we also know that we don’t have the same strong relationships with all of our learners. Involving them in the bigger decisions will begin to create relationships with even the most reluctant learners.
These techniques also work when talking about lessons, practice, and assessment, but that is a topic for another day. The time taken to create the conditions for learning will pay off in the latter part of the school year, when the classroom will be a smooth-running machine. Your learners are still kids—they’re still developing and they may stumble and slip up from time to time, but they’ll recover and self-correct far more quickly when they understand the “why.” And then they’ll get back to learning. High academic expectations won’t be something we need to “hold kids accountable” for meeting; because of the relationships you’ve built and the conditions you have created, they’ll be doing it for themselves.