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How Low Can Expectations Go?

October 1, 2010

Middle managers are often annoyed by the way I provoke my students by foolishly trying to ensure they work hard and learn a lot. Here are some of the things I have been told in order to persuade me to lower my expectations:

1)      They aren’t like us, they won’t learn.

2)      They aren’t going to get their target grades.

3)      They have different learning styles.

4)      They need to have fun activities.

5)      They can’t be expected to listen.

6)      They just need to do old exam papers.

7)      They can’t be expected to behave.

8)      You have to reward them by giving them free time.

9)      Even when you make them go quiet, it doesn’t mean they are listening.

10)  They need to know you’re on their side and they won’t if you keep making them work.

As I write this list I imagine a critical reader (and there are many) thinking:

“What an awful teacher. He has unrealistically high expectations and doesn’t understand what kids are like.”

Or possibly even:

“He doesn’t like the kids, he just wants them to work hard. All the bad behaviour he mentions must be in his classes and be his fault”.

But then I think of the last few PGCE students who have taken some of my classes, every one of them has been hit in the face by the sheer unwillingness to learn or cooperate they face from the students, even from classes that I had got on track and learning.

And I think of the sort of advice I’ve given to these PGCE students:

“You can’t expect them to listen for that long. You can’t expect them to follow instructions you’ve only given once. You can’t expect them to just listen the first time you speak. You can’t expect them to work without being threatened. You can’t expect them to understand an activity that involves following more than three instructions.  You can’t expect them to wait in silence when you aren’t talking to them.”

The fact is that while I am sickened by people telling me to lower my expectations to those that are normal in the schools I’ve worked in, my own expectations are probably still low compared with those of anybody who has never taught on the battleground. I can despair at how so many students in so many classrooms are expected to learn so little, but when it comes down to it, I have long since lowered my expectations below those that naïve  outsiders would have. I have long since lowered my expectations below those that any half-decent parent would have. I have long since lowered my expectations below those that anyone who still thought schools were about learning would have. I wonder, if I left the battleground, would it be too late for me? Would I even know how to teach kids who want to learn and want to work?

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14 comments

  1. It is very easy as a teacher to lower your standards with a class but almost impossible to raise them. At my current school I took over two gcse classes from a teacher who did not believe in making them work. They did not value her lessons partly because they did not believe that she wanted them to well. After about a month with me they were working in silence and whilst they did not all achieve the magic C grade they did have confidence in their knowledge of physics and all had improved by at least one grade.

    My current school is by no means a battleground school; when I worked in such a school I had very low success criteria – with one class it was getting them all in the room at the start of the lesson and still having them there at the end. Even in such a school there were teachers who were able to get every class working and would have no truck with the comments you had said to you. I aspired to be like them and was making some progress towards it before leaving due to the effect the battles were having on me.

    Based on what I read here OldAndrew, you have been fighting the good fight and hopefully what you do is inspiring other teachers in your school. I hope you ignore what you are being told by teachers who have taken the easy route and you continue to battle for your pupils.


  2. “kids who want to learn and want to work”
    A what?


  3. “10) They need to know you’re on their side and they won’t if you keep making them work.”

    I’ve never come across that comment before. Whoever said it really should be shot!

    I can’t understand why some people go into teaching and then take SMT positions, if they don’t at least want to try to inspire the pupils to learn.

    I suppose for some the old adage ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach’ rings true.


  4. My Answers
    1)      They aren’t like us, they won’t learn.
    That’s right, they are kids, their learning comes naturally in a lot of fields, but not in academic subjects and it is part and parcel of my job to tell them how to do it
    2)      They aren’t going to get their target grades.
    Are you telling me that we are educating them into being losers? I am not working towards grades, I teach how to contribute to society. They can’t be all on the dole, can they?
    3)      They have different learning styles.
    There is no scientific base for the fad of learning styles. But if a learning style should exist, it seems to me something to overcome, instead of being limited by it.
    4)      They need to have fun activities.
    Yes, I agree, let’s say that each lesson once a frisson has to run through the classroom. But the excitement has to be about the matter in hand, not about something that deters from it.
    5)      They can’t be expected to listen.
    Indeed, some students seem to have problems with attention span. We have to work on that, we need diligent workers in our economy.
    6)      They just need to do old exam papers.
    The exam is really important indeed. My students did well on their exams over the years, didn’t they? Having covered a wide range of topics in my lessons enabled them to deal easily with the more limited exam topics.
    7)      They can’t be expected to behave.
    To me that seems your problem, you don’t have expectations. I do have them though, I am a decent fellow and I expect to be treated accordingly.
    8)      You have to reward them by giving them free time.
    Are you telling me that I get my salary for wasting time?
    9)      Even when you make them go quiet, it doesn’t mean they are listening.
    Possibly, but without order in the classroom I am sure that no one listens. I go for the likelihood that someone may be listening.
    10)  They need to know you’re on their side and they won’t if you keep making them work.
    You don’t have a realistic view of our students. They know they need the results of study in the long term. They only indulge themselves in the short term. When I make them work now they hate me for it, but they respect me. They know I’m on their side.


  5. “Indeed, some students seem to have problems with attention span. We have to work on that”

    If you wish to develop a large bicep, you increase the amount of work you give it. Whilst I daily hear teachers decry their pupils’ minute attention spans, I then see them giving tiny micro-bites of work and lessons divided into umpteen little tasklets “so they won’t get bored”.

    It’s the equivalent of trying to grow that bicep by making it lift a teabag.


  6. BicepS! My concentration span is minute.


  7. I have, since qualifying 4 years ago, worked for four separate angels in middle management – real human beings, and good teachers. Senior management, on the other hand (with one or two noble exceptions who always got stuck with the timetabling) were over-promoted, chronically insecure, and anal-retentive third-rate devious bureaucrats.


    • Fair point. SMT are overwhelmingly bad. Middle managers are far, far better, but the bad ones are probably the greatest source of stress for individual classroom teachers.


  8. In my experience, good middle managers are also good classroom teachers not desperate to get out of the classroom. The ones who are frankly not much cop at teaching (most of whom got their positions simply by staying there, especially in a poor school) will do anything, promise anything, accept anything for a reduced timetable, regardless of how unsuited to senior management they may be.


  9. Lily – you are spot on. The Peter Principle in action. TBG – I am sure I will have the misfortune to meet one or two of the monsters you describe soon. In fact there may be a Lambton Worm forming even now, in my own department…….


  10. Far from setting expectations too low, many of the schools I work with have targets set by management based on Fisher Family Trust Band D. This means the deprtments are expected to achieve the same results as those gained by the top 25% across the country.


    • There’s a difference between targets and expectations.


  11. In the schools I work with the subject leaders certainly feel that their departments are expected to achieve these targets and they take them seriously. They know that they will be having an interview with the head shortly after exam day to discuss the results and it may not be a very comfortable meeting.

    In fact helping them to achieve their targets is sometimes the reason why I’m in there at all: I am one of the much disparaged LA Consultants. Though I hasten to say in my defence, that I do teach lessons to demonstrate my ideas and frequently get asked back.


    • My point was not that departments aren’t expected to meet their targets, but that this is not the same as the day to day expectations in every class in every year.



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