Supporting High Standards through High Expectations

Today was a hard day in the classroom. I had a student tell me that he just “didn’t want to do it anymore,” that my class is “too much.” When questioned about what his comment meant, he fell into a long rant about how my expectations were so high, my work was so hard and there was so much, and I was never willing to “cut him some slack.” I listened patiently and when he was done, I told him that I understood his frustration, that I knew he could overcome it, and then I let him leave my room to cool down and get some distance.

If I’m being honest, I let him leave more for my sanity than his. Because, you see, I do have high expectations. I push and push some more. My instruction is aligned with high-quality learning standards and designed to be rigorous. It requires critical thinking and a heavy investment of time. I won’t apologize for it. Students need someone, at least one person, who expects more from them every single day. I’ve learned this after twenty years of teaching, and I’m okay with being the “hard” teacher.

The central learning tool in my classroom is a thought journal that is multi-faceted and developed to showcase each day’s learning. It is highly creative, wholly unique to each student, and complexly layered with multiple expressions of learning around key ideas. It is both a means of expression of learning mastery and original thought. The type of learning students experience in my classroom is different. I ask my students to think—really think—every single day.

For many students, this is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and I recognize it is very hard. It requires a huge amount of independent thought and a substantial amount of instructional time. I don’t use a textbook; I don’t assign worksheets or packets or traditional learning projects. Instead, I require my students to research, ask questions, find answers and develop their own thoughts and ideas. I don’t want to shape their understandings of literature; I want them to do the work of learning it so that they come away with an independent position on the concept.

Because I design my assignments to highlight a student’s understanding of a specific standard, rather than a skill or strategy, the depth of knowledge they are required to tap into pushes them to access their prior knowledge and create pathways to new and more meaningful connections to the content knowledge that contribute to their long term learning. While this type of learning serves them in the short term in my classroom, this type of thinking better prepares students for long term success in college and the workforce. Creating a foundation of knowledge they carry with them from year to year as they move through school should be the goal, right? This means that as educators, we must consistently work toward deeper and truly genuine learning experiences for our students. Does it require more work, time, and planning? Absolutely. But it’s worth it.

The benefits of setting and maintaining high expectations for student learning aligned to quality academic standards go beyond a single assignment, or even a single school year, and outweigh any initial discomfort for teachers or students. When a student is consistently held to a higher expectation of learning through rigorous academic standards, it changes the whole experience for everyone involved. The learning that occurs as a result of rigor and critical thinking creates students who use their knowledge and wisdom to build deep insight and mastery. They become learned.

So, when my students want to complain that it’s “too much” or that they “just can’t” anymore, I am secretly excited because I know they are tapping into that unexplored learning space—the place where original thought happens and knowledge is grown—and that is beyond cool.

Dawn Bilbrey attended Eastern New Mexico University and obtained her Bachelor’s in Education in 2000. She then went on to gain her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from ENMU in 2010. Currently, she teaches high school English at Texico High School in Texico, NM.