12. Upholding high expectations

Video transcript

Presenter intro

The goals that teachers have for their pupils have a huge impact on what they achieve. If we want our pupils to experience success at school and beyond, it is crucial that teachers set high expectations, both for behaviour and academic success. But setting high expectations alone isn’t enough. Teachers also need to show pupils how they can meet them.

Expert insight

Teachers can have a massive influence over their pupils. The expectations that teachers set for their pupils can shape the outcomes that they achieve both at school and beyond, and not just in terms of academic success. Teachers have the ability to affect and improve pupil well-being, motivation and behaviour. In order to achieve the best for their pupils, teachers need to set high expectations, both of academic success and behaviour, and support them to get there.

High expectations for pupil behaviour can include a wide range of behaviours such as: being polite and respectful to each other; contributing to class discussions; working silently when asked; persevering during a challenging task. Some of these behaviours will be more obvious than others; some pupils will arrive into your classroom being good at some and not others. But for every expectation that teachers set for their pupils, teachers need to show pupils how to achieve it.

In the first instance, manageable instructions, explicitly describing behavioural expectations and highlighting them through positive reinforcement helps pupils to meet high expectations. When pupils have done something that you have asked, such as placing their books in a neat pile, or answering in a full sentence once they have discussed an idea with a partner, acknowledging this positive behaviour can encourage others to do the same. When pupils exceed your expectations, such as being especially kind to a fellow pupil, or building on someone else’s idea in a nuanced way, teachers can praise their pupils. 

Another approach that can help pupils to achieve high expectations is to draw their attention to the behaviours that they have demonstrated. For example, to encourage a pupil to share their thinking, even if it is wrong, a teacher might remind the class that they have been brave enough to do this in the past and felt proud of themselves when they did so. Pupils can get better at regulating their behaviour when teachers help them to identify what behaviour a situation calls for.

Using intentional and aspirational language and encouraging effort also helps to create a classroom culture where pupils become used to working hard and trying their best. And pupils need to experience success in the classroom to feel that they are capable of it. This means setting tasks that stretch pupils and being explicit about the knowledge and skills that they need to acquire in order to carry out these tasks well. Once again, it is about showing pupils how to be successful, not simply setting your expectations high and hoping for the best. Powerful, motivating words need to be accompanied by crystal clear actions.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see Ambition Institute coach Leah Wooldridge model how to establish high expectations during a class discussion. Try to spot how Leah does the following: 

  • Teaches and rigorously maintains clear behavioural expectations.
  • Acknowledges and praises pupil effort.


For the purpose of this model, I want you to imagine that I am teaching a year English 8 class Romeo and Juliet. I am about to ask a series of questions to help to consolidate and develop pupil thinking. My expectation is that everyone should be willing to answer. 

“In a moment, we are going to recall some of the new ideas and vocabulary that we learnt about Romeo last lesson and look for examples of them in the scene that we have just read. Remember that when I ask a question, I expect everybody to be thinking of the answer. If you do so, this task will help to make some of that new vocabulary stick and you’ll be able to use it in your writing later on in the lesson. 

What does the word rash mean? This is a word that we learnt last week so I want you to think carefully. Oliver?

[After thinking about the answer, Oliver says he doesn’t know]

OK, let’s ask the question again, Oliver I am going to come back to you so make sure that you listen carefully. What does the word rash mean? Elwin? 

[Pupil gives correct answer.]

Oliver, what does the word rash mean? 

[Oliver give the correct answer]. 

And can you think of an example from this scene where Romeo has behaved in a rash way? 

[Oliver scans the text and gives an appropriate response.]

Great. You clearly thought about the definition of the word rash when Elwin answered because you have picked a really strong quotation.”

In this example, I set out by giving clear behavioural expectations. I stated that everyone is expected to listen and think when I ask a question. I maintained this by asking a question to the whole class, and then naming a pupil, encouraging all pupils to think as they may be called on to answer. And I went back to Oliver when to try giving me a definition of the word rash once another pupil had correctly answer. Again, I am pushing him to keep listening and thinking. 

I supported all the pupils to master challenging content by getting them to recall what the word rash means before looking for an example of it in the play. Both the word rash and Shakespeare’s vocabulary is unfamiliar to my pupils and it helps them to tackle each piece of content separately. 

Finally, I praised Oliver when he successfully applied his new understanding of the word rash to the play. Having got an answer wrong initially, it takes effort and perseverance to keep trying, especially in front of the whole class, so this is definitely worth highlighting. And it was also a great opportunity to remind him, and others, of their ability to make progress even in a short time frame. Pupils benefit when we help them to attribute successes to their efforts rather than any innate ‘ability’. 

Presenter next steps and summary

In this video, we have explored why it is important for teachers to have high expectations and how they can help pupils to achieve them. Now, read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which ideas do you think the example illustrated the best? 

  • Teaching and rigorously maintaining clear behavioural expectations.
  • Supporting pupils to master challenging content, which builds towards long-term goals.
  • Acknowledging and praising pupil effort and emphasising progress being made.

You may well have seen some teachers who make setting high expectations look easy. Pupil behaviour is exemplary, and they appear to have the magic touch. But none of this is magic. Helping pupils to meet high expectations for behaviour, as well as academic success, can occur when teachers consistently show their pupils what to do. It is about being explicit to pupils and constantly reinforcing what we say.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Mahrez has been working hard on conveying high expectations in her classroom, encouraging pupils to try hard and be open to challenge. However, she still occasionally struggles with low-level disruption and worries that her expectations may be unrealistic. On the other hand, when she looks at experienced colleagues’ classrooms, they seem to achieve better behaviour and learning from the same pupils. What role do high expectations play in pupil success and how can Ms Mahrez build a classroom that consistently delivers high expectations?

Key idea

Teachers can uphold high expectations by ensuring pupils are supported to achieve classroom success over time.

Evidence summary

The role of teacher support in pupil success

Ms Mahrez is determined to uphold high expectations but she worries that there is a gap between her ambitions and what her pupils can achieve. To close this gap, one of the most important things Ms Mahrez can do is create a learning environment where pupils experience a high success rate (Rosenshine, 2012). Over time, pupil success can unlock the other learning behaviours Ms Mahrez seeks to promote.

To promote pupil success, Ms Mahrez’s classroom should demand a lot of pupils, but should also support pupils to meet these demands. To help with this, she can:

  • Celebrate pupil resilience to failures along the way.
  • Encourage pupils to attribute successes to their efforts and smart strategies rather than any innate ‘ability’ (Coe et al., 2014).

Ms Mahrez’s role in securing success is partly about ensuring pupils have enough support, particularly with challenging tasks. If support is absent, pupils may fail to meet Ms Mahrez’s high expectations which may damage pupil perceptions of self-worth. She also needs to take care not to inadvertently communicate low expectations, for example by setting tasks which are too easy, or by over-praising pupils for simply meeting expectations (Coe et al., 2014). Promoting success, including proactively highlighting success to parents and carers, will also improve pupil-teacher relationships as these are based on repeated interactions over time (Wubbels et al., 2014).

Supporting pupils to develop effective learning behaviours

Supporting success in this way also leads to pupils exhibiting more effective approaches to their learning. For example: 

  • Increased effort and confidence: Pupils’ perception of their ability, their expectations of future success and the extent to which they value an activity, influence their motivation and persistence, making improved academic outcomes more likely. This may be particularly important for low-attaining pupils who may have had limited experiences of success in the past (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).
  • Growing intrinsic motivation: ‘Extrinsic’ rewards like praise for pupils who are willing to try a difficult task can be useful to get pupils started. However, where pupils are motivated ‘intrinsically’ by their own goals (and the believe they can achieve them), pupils will be more persistent in the long term (Lazowski & Hulleman, 2016). 

In sum, success over time supports the development of pupil effort, self-belief and intrinsic motivation which, in turn, drives further classroom success in a virtuous classroom cycle.

Ms Mahrez can also help pupils to understand and consciously cultivate these effective learning behaviours. Research suggests pupils can get better at self-regulating their behaviours and emotions (EEF, 2017), and pupils who do so are likely to attain more highly and succeed in the future (Gutman & Schoon, 2013). For example, if pupils can identify the behaviours that underpin their success (such as perseverance), they can regulate emotional barriers (like impatience) that can prevent them from being successful. This makes it more likely they stay on task, which is a strong predictor of successful learning (Muijs & Reynolds, 2010).

Finally, pupils are influenced by the goals, values and behaviours of classmates (IES, 2008; Rathmann et al., 2018). Over time, individual pupils adopting effective behaviours can also create a classroom climate that promotes success for their peers.

The long-term impacts of high teacher expectations

Ms Mahrez is aware that her expectations are important for classroom behaviour (IES, 2008) and learning (Murdock-Perriera & Sedlacek, 2018). Teacher expectations influence whether pupils experience an effective classroom, where there is both the support and challenge to succeed at goals that stretch pupils (Coe et al. 2014). Also, teachers who add most value to academic outcomes also support pupil success beyond the classroom. Having an effective teacher, likely one who holds these high expectations, is also a factor making it more likely pupils will experience other forms of future success, including:

  • Attending university.
  • Earning a higher salary.
  • Avoiding having children as a teenager (Chetty, Friedman & Rockoff, 2014).

Pupils who perceive that their teachers are in control of the class and include them in activities are also more likely to feel satisfied in life and have better school outcomes (Rathmann et al., 2018). Moreover, lower-achieving pupils appear to benefit most from effective teaching (Slater et al., 2011). Ms Mahrez should be ambitious in her expectations for her pupils within her classroom. By developing her effectiveness as a teacher, she can be confident that she is also setting pupils up for wider success. In time, this should lead pupils to also have higher expectations of themselves.

Nuances and caveats

Being an effective teacher requires strong knowledge of effective instruction and the subject being taught (Coe et al., 2014). Ms Mahrez needs to develop her practice in relation to the instruction and subject strands of this programme to have the best chance of translating high expectations into successful learning behaviours.

Conveying and upholding high expectations takes significant teacher effort and time. Improvements in pupil attitudes to learning may not be immediately visible, and there may be steps backwards as well as forwards. Ms Mahrez may feel like her colleagues’ classrooms work as if by magic, but she needs to understand there is no shortcut. Her consistent efforts to support pupil success, and helping them understand the process behind this, is the best way she can support pupils in her classroom and set them up for success beyond it.

Key takeaways

  • High expectations are achieved through learning environments which demand lots from pupils but also ensure they experience success.
  • Experiencing success improves pupil effort, confidence and motivation.
  • Pupils can improve their self-regulation and so their behaviour and learning.
  • Teachers who promote academic success also make pupil success beyond the classroom more likely.

Further reading

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014). Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679.


Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014). Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning: Guidance Report.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640.

Muijs, D. & Reynolds, D. (2010). Effective Teaching. London: SAGE Publications.

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018). Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707.

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K., & Richter M. (2018). Perceived class climate and school-aged children’s life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0189335.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Slater, H., Davies, N. M., & Burgess, S. (2011). Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 74(5), 629-645.

Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014). Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In

E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed. 363–386). New York, Routledge.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

  • High expectations are achieved through learning environments which demand lots from pupils but also ensure they experience success.
  • Experiencing success improves pupil effort, confidence and motivation.
  • Pupils can improve their self-regulation and so their behaviour and learning.
  • Teachers who promote academic success also make pupil success beyond the classroom more likely.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?