In the last 11 years in my work as a curriculum and assessment coach, as an assistant principal and now as a principal, I have had the opportunity to be in a lot of classrooms. I’ve seen instruction from teachers who consistently achieve incredible growth and high achievement from their students year after year no matter the class makeup. Across the classrooms, these teachers used different class structures, techniques, and strategies, but there is one quality that all of these teachers have had. They all have exhibited an unrelenting determination to bring their students to mastery of the standards. When you take that tenacity and pair it with a deep understanding of the standards you get high expectations.
As administrators we know who these teachers are. We wish we could clone them. We want to scale what they do across our school, but how? I recently took on this challenge in my school. My goal is to initiate conversations about high expectations in our school, provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own expectations, and then to learn from each other how to improve practice.
In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind and in being clear about my own expectations, I needed to define for teachers what I meant by high expectations. I wanted to paint a very clear picture of what classrooms with high expectations look like. I started where I often do when considering the quality of a teacher behavior or the impact of instruction: student work. Student work is where the rubber meets the road. It is the indisputable evidence that determines whether or not a strategy worked or if the teacher’s lesson/technique was effective. In classes where the teacher has high expectations, the vast majority of students leave them demonstrating the grade level or course content at a high level and they are able to transfer that knowledge or skill to novel or unfamiliar situations.
So I asked myself, “What conditions exist and what do I see in classrooms that are marked by high expectations?” I wanted to create a document I could use to define specifc look-fors related to high expectations. The answer led me to AdvancEd’sEffective Learning Environments Observation Tool® (ELEOT). I was introduced to the ELEOT through participating in an AdvancEd diagnostic review of a school. I love how the ELEOT focuses on the students in the learning environment with one of the seven key environments being “high expectations.” I decided to create my own simplified version, using many of its look-fors, but adding some of my own. I created a 3-column chart with these headings:What are the Students Doing?
- What is the Teacher Doing or Has Done to Support this Expectation?
- What does the Student Work Look Like?
Under each heading are specific look-fors with check boxes and a place for the observer to write evidence.
Next, on my in-house school blog that I use with our staff, I shared the tool and a simple definition of high expectations. I wrote that by high expectations I meant that “the opportunities provided to students to demonstrate learning are rigorous, students are expected to respond at a high level, and they are held accountable to do so.” I shared my intent to focus on high expectations and wrote, “in order for us to reach the next level of success and get more students to proficiency (especially in math) we need to look at the level of expectations we have in all classrooms.”
I gave my teachers these questions to consider:
- What are we expecting our students to do with the knowledge we impart?
- Are we providing opportunities for students to show what they know in a way that matches the rigor of the standards?
- How do we get to that point consistently in every classroom?
- What curriculum work and assessments need to be written so that we have clear targets for our expectations of students?
After planting the seed with my teachers, I put my fellow administrators in the district to work. In my district, we have a weekly administrators’ instructional meeting where we meet at each other’s schools and usually conduct a group walkthrough of a classroom. It was my turn to host and I asked if the group would help me gather some baseline data to begin the discussion of high expectations with my teachers. I had my fellow principals and district administrators fan out across the building to find examples of high expectations in action. They used the tool I adapted from ELEOT which included straightforward look-fors and a place to write evidence or examples. They were instructed not to assess the level of expectations but to just use the checklists as ideas for what to look for and then to jot down examples of what they saw in the classrooms.
I wrote in our school blog that I hoped having this feedback will spark some rich discussion in our PLCs. I asked the teachers to look at the look-for instrument and told them that the bulleted check-box lists aren’t all-inclusive or items that all HAD to be present in their classrooms. I gave them the option of proceeding on as planned during the time the team would be at school to allow the visitors to “see what they see,” but also gave them the option of reflecting on what they had planned and making changes in hopes of providing exemplars for the visitors.
The administrators’ walkthroughs provided quality, specific, examples to share with the teachers and gave me just what I needed to begin the conversations during our PLC meetings next week. I am excited to share with the teachers the examples we found and look forward to hearing their reflections. Next steps will include having teachers bring student work to their PLC and analyzing those samples for high expectations. I will also use the instrument I created to for more observations and to give the teachers individual feedback on the evidence I am able to gather on the level of expectations in their lessons. It would be great to include teachers on a hunt for high expectations throughout the school, as well.
This is exciting work we are beginning. If this process works well, I could see it replicated with other attributes we value in our teachers or lessons. Qualities like student engagement or differentiation could be defined and broken down in similar ways then taken through the same steps. I am energized by the possibilities!