LEADER EXPECTATIONS: What you set is what you get
High expectations matter
There’s increased interest in teacher expectations by education researchers and practitioners. Related research findings inform and help us to understand the critical link between teacher expectations and student learning. When a teacher sets appropriate high academic expectations with aligned rich tasks for their students, and holds students accountable for meeting those expectations, student learning and achievement doesn’t just increase, it increases significantly. Conversely, when a teacher sets relatively low academic expectations with low quality tasks for individual or groups of students, there is relatively low accountability and low student learning and achievement.
Professor Christine Rubie-Davies at The University of Auckland is renowned for her research and writing on teacher expectations. An excellent introductory resource to use with your teachers is her short YouTube video, ‘What if all teachers had high expectations for every student’ (click here to watch).
The implications for school leaders are critical. Leaders not only need to know about and engage their teachers in these research findings. They also need to critically reflect on the expectations that they set for their teams and teachers, how they make their expectations explicit to others, and how teams and teachers will be held accountable for meeting those expectations. Clearly, leader expectations matter to enhance teacher performance and improve student outcomes.
When a school leader holds high expectations of self, the leadership team, teachers and students, their expectations need to be credible and aspirational. While data analysis may point to gaps to address and targets to reach, the tricky part for leaders often comes with how to engage and motivate others in important improvement work. This ‘how’ is when a leader’s professional knowledge becomes critical. How can a leader convincingly promote high expectations and hold others accountable if they haven’t figured out a way forward that will have a high-impact on teaching and learning?
A way forward must include carefully selected high-impact strategies that increase the chances and decrease the risks of success for everyone involved. To do this, a leader’s self-expectation is that a chosen way forward will be research-informed and based on proven high-impact leadership and teaching practices. If quality-assured research does not support a proposed way forward, don’t do it! If the school does not have high-impact data to validate a proposed practice, find a school that does and pilot it, or don’t do it!
Be like a doctor or a surgeon. They wouldn’t treat you or operate on you without a high degree of certainty and a low degree of risk from proven practice and rigorous research that an intended treatment or surgery will work and for the better! You trust and rely on their up-to-date professional knowledge to diagnose and resolve your health problem by their selection of the most efficient and effective remedy known.
The main message is that a leader should not set high expectations for self and others, or hold self and others accountable for meeting those expectations, unless the expectations are valid and realistic. To do this well, a leader requires the self-expectation of acquiring and having high-level professional knowledge. It’s insufficient to set high expectations based solely on personal theories or practical knowledge. Why? Because research findings check and test that knowledge for currency and potency. If you agree, you’ll understand that setting and promoting leader expectations requires deep professional knowledge, deliberately and consistently acquired over time through practical experience and regular professional reading and learning.
Today’s educational leaders need to be exceptionally well informed about pedagogy and leadership to successfully tackle tough teaching and learning problems in schools. Teachers and students should trust their leaders to expertly guide and direct them to solve stubborn problems and achieve better outcomes, academic and social.
Great expectations are those that are a balance of high-demand and high-response, which both challenge and support teachers to increase their effectiveness in student learning and achievement. Great expectations are aspirational and based on checked and tested professional knowledge to increase the chances of success.
Stephen Dinham, Professor of Instructional Leadership and an Associate Dean at The University
of Melbourne, in his must-read ‘Leading Learning and Teaching’ promotes authoritative leadership, which he defines as a high degree and balance of demandingness and responsiveness. This leadership expects a lot and gives a lot. In other words, authoritative leaders set high expectations, support their teachers and students to meet those expectations, and everyone involved is held accountable.
High expectations require high accountability if they are to be met. Just as a teacher sets high expectations for their students and holds them accountable for improved outcomes, an authoritative leader holds self and others accountable for meeting an expectation. These leaders make explicit to others why accountability matters, how it will happen and what will happen. This is intentional and reciprocal accountability, where accountability is not optional and people are accountable to each other for delivering on an expectation.
The critical role and impact of leadership on the vitality and purpose of a school is emphasised in Ken Robinson’s compelling book ‘Creative Schools’ and his acclaimed TED Talks (click here to watch). He argues that successful leaders teach and motivate others to bring out the best in them. They do this by clearly and frequently articulating the purpose of schooling, the right things that need to be done by all in the school’s community, and that change is desirable rather than ‘business as usual’ to give every student a chance to succeed.
Through their influence and action, effective leaders move people out of their comfort zones. This expectation of self and others requires providing people with support, resources and skills to do the work. If a new expectation is to be met by all, Robinson wisely cautions school leaders to introduce a change or innovation slowly, for example over six months, to allow its progress to accelerate dramatically later.
Conclusively, credible leaders who are effective and respected hold high expectations of self and others. They genuinely care for those they lead and are highly trusted. It’s just as important for a leader to hold and promote high expectations across all levels of the school as it is for a teacher to do for their students in the classroom.
High-expectation leaders regularly communicate high standards of expected performance to teachers and students, they are very clear about and able to articulate their high expectations, and they emulate those expectations in their daily words and actions.
First and foremost, high-expectation leaders put student learning at the centre of the school by their explicit and consistent promotion of the expectation that every student should experience success and achieve.
Dinham, S. (2016). Leading learning and teaching. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.
Robinson, K. (2015). Creative schools. London: Penguin Books.
Rubie-Davies, C. (2014). Becoming a high expectation teacher: Raising the bar. London and New York: Routledge.