Each of us has experienced expectations from people around us that influenced our behavior. Their belief in us and our potential influenced how we approached tasks and challenges we faced and may have even carried us to success. It is also true that each of us has experienced expectations to which we have given little attention or may even have rejected. Despite the expectancies and even demands presented, we failed to be influenced or change our behavior.
Of course, there are multiple reasons why we pay attention to and are influenced by some expectations and not others. For example, some expectations carry threats or consequences that make lack of attention or resistance a difficult choice. In response to these expectations, we may have complied in the moment or shifted our behavior until the threat passed or the person holding the expectation was no longer able to exact the consequence. At other times, we may have felt little connection to or reason to be influenced by someone who may not have our best interests in mind. In still other situations, we are compelled to give our best effort and continue to respond to expectations even when the person holding the expectations of us are no longer physically present or in a position to monitor our follow through.
Expectations can be a powerful force when employed thoughtfully and appropriately. Our ability to tap the power of expectations is important if we hope to have a significant and lasting influence on the success of our students. The secret to expectations that have a powerful and lasting influence resides in five key elements. Let’s consider how each of these five elements can have an impact from the perspective of students, especially for students who may lack the confidence to take on difficult challenges and are likely to struggle on their own.
The first element of influence is the relationship we have with our students. It is the foundation on which the other four elements rest. Without a relationship, students may perceive expectations as self-serving and manipulative.
From the perspective of students, relationships that influence may feel and sound like: “I am noticed.” “I feel like I belong in this class.” “My teacher is interested in me.” “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”
The second source of influence can be found in our commitment to having our students succeed. Expectations that influence go beyond having students feel noticed. Students need to feel our commitment to their success.
From the perspective of students, commitment may feel and sound like: “My teacher acts as though she cannot succeed unless I succeed.” “I feel like my teacher is invested in my learning.” “She always seems to know how well I am doing.”
A third element of expectations that influence is confidence that our students are capable and will succeed. What we believe about our students and their potential matters. We communicate our beliefs in thousands of obvious and not so obvious ways, including many of which we may not even be aware. The four most powerful words we can communicate to students are: I believe in you.
From the perspective of students, our confidence may feel and sound like: “I know you really believe I can succeed.” “I have doubts about whether success is possible, but your confidence in my potential gives me the courage to try and the hope that success is within my reach.”
A fourth element is the guidance we offer when students struggle, have questions, and face difficult choices. Students need to know that we are ready to coach, support, and offer wisdom when they are not sure what to do. This element offers students evidence that they can count on us.
From the perspective of students, our guidance may feel and sound like: “She always seems to have ideas and strategies I can try.” “Sometimes she asks me questions that help me find the answers I need.” “Even though she is no longer here, I can still hear her voice and imagine her advice.”
The fifth element is our readiness to offer encouragement. Students need to know that we are “in their corner,” paying attention, and that their progress matters to us. Our encouragement to keep going and celebrate success ties all the elements together and reassures students that they matter to us.
From the perspective of students, our encouragement may feel and sound like: “I love hearing that she notices my progress.” “It is reassuring to know that she will be there to support and cheer me on.” “Even though it has been years, I still can feel her presence and hear her urging me to keep trying.”
Expectations can be a powerful force. They can move students to try, risk, and persist when they might otherwise give up. Remarkably, expectations that influence can last long after our students leave us. When former students tell us that they can still hear our voice in their ears, they are telling us that our expectations had a powerful influence.