Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 3)

(...continued from part 2)

Explicitly Communicating Expectations

There is a simple axiom that I wish (yes, wish; I don't expect it) was written across the front doors of all schools (and stores, businesses, houses, etc. for that matter): People cannot be held responsible for information they do not have.We spend a great deal of time in education, appropriately so, talking about learning targets and objectives. We stress the importance of clearly defining our expected outcomes. In fact, we have almost developed an entire vocabulary in our field just for this topic. Despite what we call them, the purpose is for teachers and students to know when they have met a particular objective and what it takes to show that they have met it.

If we do this with academic behaviors, then should it be any different with other behaviors? If not, then our premise is that for students to recognize and correct misbehavior, they must first be able to identify the expected behavior. A person only knows he missed a target if he can locate the target in the first place. It might be worth taking another look at just how clear we are being versus how clear we think we are being.

Before listing specific suggestions to help ensure that expectations are clear and explicit, there is one more important point. Contrary to the superstition attached to wishes ("Don't tell anyone or it won't come true."), there is a guarantee that goes with expectations. Don't tell everyone and it won't come true! If you want to ensure that people won't follow expectations, assume they already know them.

So, how can we create a culture built on common expectations that guide our daily work? Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling. (If you have other ideas, then include them in your comments.)

A great way to ensure fairness and safety in a school is to create expectations that apply to ALL people, regardless of age, gender, background, etc. It is true that the actual behavior in response to an expectation might look different from one individual to another. For example, a teacher will meet the expectation of being prepared for class in a different manner than a student. Still, the expectation of being prepared would apply to both stakeholders.
Some would challenge this suggestion by saying that adults and teachers should be held to different standards. Is it responsible, though, to expect something of children that you wouldn't expect of adults?

Rule of thumb: If breathing is not a prerequisite to following your rule or meeting your expectation for students, then change it. Too often, we define for students the exact behaviors we don't want to see from them. Don't talk. No horseplay. Don't get out of your seat. Don't be late to class. No running in the halls. (All things a dead man can do.) I catch myself doing this much more frequently than I'd like to admit. Instead of constantly making requests that don't require a pulse, I could clarify and model a positively stated expectation, and then, well, expect it.

Of course, we already do this in education. It is often just too late. I see positively stated expectations frequently on behavior contracts used as interventions with students for discipline reasons. There is nothing wrong with this practice. Indeed, it is helpful in many cases to offer students (and even adults) replacement behaviors. It is a quick way of telling kids, "Stop doing ___ and start doing ___ instead."

What about just having "placement" behaviors that are clearly defined up front for all students? Then, each person can know how to act in this "place" all the time. If behavior contracts have been shown to be constructive supports for student discipline, I can't help but wonder why a school with 1000 students wouldn't have 1000 behavior contracts.

This seems obvious, but can be tricky. Clarity with expectations usually is found in the action words. The most important words of our expectations might be the verbs and adverbs. The guiding question is, "What does that look like?" So, even with a broad expectation, such as Be Respectful, there need to be defined behaviors that demonstrate it.

In fact, a good check-for-understanding is to not only ask a student to tell you what an expectation is, but to also show you. If a young person can describe it in words yet has trouble getting his body to physically act it out, then we still have work to do in defining the expectation.

Another specific characteristic of true expectations is that they never go away. Sure, there are expectations that are particular to certain events or times, but in the context of developing a campus culture the emphasis should be on expectations that always guide daily routines. As educators, we might ask, "What is it that we expect from students and each other everyday, all day?" Consider these silly scenarios to make the point in the context of the following expectations.

Expectation = Be Productive: The high school principal is driving to work one day when he suddenly realizes, "Oh no! Today is Thursday! I forgot that my science department decided to not be productive on every other Thursday. I can't have that meeting with them after all."
Expectation = Be Prepared: The teachers didn't bother gathering for the called meeting because last time the assistant principal wasn't prepared. After that, a decision was made by central office that this particular AP didn't have to be prepared for any more meetings this grading period.

Expectation = Be Respectful: The faculty has decided that since Fridays after lunch are when students are most riled up and have difficulty following directions and settling down, they will have a ten-minute period after each lunch where students can go outside and yell at one another and push each other around to release some of their energy.
Admittedly, these are absurd accounts. But that is the point! If an expectation is good enough to have part of the time, then it is good enough to have all the time. Without consistent expectations, there would be chaos.

(to be continued...)

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