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Saturday / September 23

High Expectations Teaching in Practice [Case Study]

Teacher Case Study—8th Grade

It was already mid-September and I was sorry I ever told my principal that I wanted a change and a challenge in my teaching assignment. After teach­ing sixth-grade English for years, I was assigned two classes of eighth graders who seemed destined to fail the Maryland Writing Test (an assess­ment of functional writing skills, the passing of which is a requirement for graduation in Maryland). I had until November to prepare these eighth graders for the test. By the end of the first day of class, I knew that the task was going to be a greater challenge than I had anticipated. The students in my two writing classes took one look at each other and knew immediately that the class was a remedial class for dummies. How could I convince these kids that they were capable of passing the test? I had the perfect situation for my High Expectations Case Study.

Although I could easily have chosen any student from either of my classes as a subject for the case study, I picked K from seventh period. Her informal reading assessments from the spring semester showed K reading at a fifth-grade level. Her criterion-referenced test scores from the spring for reading/language arts indicated that her performance was slightly below standard. (I had not given any other tests to assess students’ current levels of writing proficiency.)

K had been turning in very little work in the Test Prep class, and what she did turn in was of low quality. She came late to class and looked for ways to escape. She wouldn’t bring the materials she needed for class, wouldn’t stay in her seat, and wouldn’t stay on task—all behaviors that would indicate K had very little self-confidence in her ability as a learner. K often created situations that ensured that I would have to focus on her poor behavior rather than her academic performance. She would occasion­ally produce work when she was sent to the in-school-suspension room, but there seemed to be no way to get her to make much effort in class.

I knew enough about K’s history to recognize that both her academic performance and behavior were in sharp decline. As a sixth grader, she had been eager to participate in all learning activities, especially enjoying those of a cooperative nature. She’d had a sunny temperament and was willing to try new things to please her teachers. I remembered reading about stu­dents who stop liking school and begin avoiding academic challenges after reaching middle school and wondered if K was a case in point. I felt that unless I could reach this student, she would surely fail the Maryland Writing Test as well as the Test Prep class and seem to tune out of school.

Experiment 1: Communicating an Essential Belief

Since the students in my Test Prep classes believed that they were placed in my class because they had little ability, I had to evaluate what I believed about these students. If I thought they had little chance to pass the Maryland Writing Test, the class was doomed. So I actively read the chapter on expecta­tions from The Skillful Teacher (Saphier, Haley-Speca, & Gower, 2008). I thought about the essential points and interesting details. I really did believe that all the students in my class could pass the writing test if only I could get them to work at it. I decided to test whether I had clearly commu­nicated a “you can do it!” attitude to my students. The following day, in place of the regular warm-up activity, I asked my class to write down what they thought my expectations were for them and what they thought it would take to pass the Maryland Writing Test. The results were a real eye-opener.

Reflection on Case Study Student

To the first question, K responded, “I think you espect [sic] us to act dumb because you don’t think we know how to write.” To the second she replied, “I could pass the test if they ask me to write about something I know or if we have practised [sic] writing the prompt in class.”

These responses were similar to those given by others in the class. Most thought I believed them to be incapable of becoming good writers. Like K, a few who thought they had a chance to pass the writing test attrib­uted passing to luck. Most believed they could never pass it. I was appalled by the responses and at the beginning of the next class spent 20 minutes focusing on the positive—all the good writing skills the group already pos­sessed. I told them that there was plenty of time for them to acquire the skills they still needed to pass the test. All they needed to do was put forth a little effort. “I know you can all do it!” was repeated again and again. That day, we accomplished more in the class than on any previous day, even though the first 20 minutes of class was spent in discussion. Even K turned in a couple of paragraphs at the end of the class!

Experiment 2: Setting Goals

I was pleased with my initial efforts at more clearly communicating the “you can do it!” message to students and didn’t want to lose momentum. I would take the written work that students had turned in the previous class and use that as a baseline assessment from which students could set specific learning goals for themselves. I constructed a series of posters that outlined specific skills students needed to pass the test. I then marked the class papers identifying which skills individuals showed mastery of and which they still needed to practice. I also developed a chart that students could use to list the skills they had already mastered and to keep track of the ones they needed to work on.

Reflection on Case Study Student

At the beginning of the next class, I had students list the skills they had already mastered on one side of their charts and pick just one skill that they would like to master next. Students were comparing lists with one another and boasting about the skills they had already mastered. Better yet, I heard the beginnings of cooperation among the students. I overheard one student saying to K, “Oh, that’s easy. I can show you how to do that.” K had chosen to work on the skill of writing an introduction that incorporates words directly from the prompt. Although she wasn’t willing to let me work with her, K did allow the student who had said she could show K how to write an introduction to sit with her. Together the girls wrote introductions to three different prompts. When I spoke to K near the end of class, she seemed pleased with her own work. She told me that is was easier to work on getting one thing right than to try to keep “everything I’m supposed to do right in my mind.” I’d say that the strategy of having K focus on one small but attainable goal was a good match between learner and strategy.

Experiment 3: Proving Detailed Feedback

I no longer dread seventh period. I think that after saying, “You can do it!” so many times to my class, I now truly believe it too! Yet of all the students in the class, I feel I’ve made the least progress with K, who is still reluctant to let me work with her. Since building a personal relationship with some students is a long process, I tried not to give up on K. Instead I began to work on the type of feedback I give to my students, making the feedback more detailed and having it focus on skills performed well, in addition to providing specific guidelines on how to improve those areas where further efforts were still needed. Also, rather than just handing back papers with feedback to students, I decided to set up in-class appointments with students to discuss their efforts.

Reflection on Case Study Student

Two weeks ago, in-class conferences would have been impossible because much of my time was spent dealing with inappropriate behaviors and complaining students. Now during seventh period, students are on task most of the time—they are still eighth graders after all—but the class cli­mate seems much more positive. Students know that when they sit down with me they will hear about what they have done right as well as what they still need to work on. K still needs to be redirected more often than others, but she is producing more work and that work is of a higher qual­ity. She now allows me to sit down next to her and discuss her work and for the first time she is coming over to ask me a question about her work. K has added writing introductions to her list of mastered skills and is now working on supporting her opinions with details and examples.

Final Reflection

Although for the purpose of this assignment I focused on the performance of one student, K, I knew I needed help with the whole class. Because all of the students in my Test Prep class were low-confidence learners, the strategies I selected were chosen to benefit all the class, not just K.

I know that when (not if!) I teach this class again, I will begin with a baseline assessment of my students’ writing skills, which I will use to help them set small, attainable goals for their own learning. Once I did that with my seventh period, students began to see the task of passing the Maryland Writing Test as achievable. I felt that students responded well to more direct feedback from me and that I would continue to discuss that feed­back personally with them. I sensed that students began to perceive me as more of a guide than “the enemy” when my feedback included positive comments as well as specific steps they could take to improve the skills they were trying to hone. Finally, I hope never again to have to ask stu­dents to write down what they think my expectations are for them and what they think it would take to pass the Maryland Writing Test. I hope to communicate my expectations for them so clearly and so frequently that that particular experiment would never have to be repeated. I believe that the mistake I made with my Test Prep classes was in communicating the importance of passing the test without clearly communicating that I thought they were all capable of passing it. And to make matters worse, I realized until I broke the tasks down into different skills that they were able to master one at a time, passing the writing test must have seemed like a hopeless task to them.

Although K has not become a model student, I have not once had to refer her to the office for poor behavior since our experiments began. I now keep supplies in class for when K doesn’t bring her own, and I’m employ­ing the sort of “persevere and return” tenacity that is necessary to motivate K to make more of an effort in class. My tenacity has paid off to the extent that K seems much less defensive now about her writing and is beginning to accept help from me and other students in the class. I will continue to wear down K’s resistance with repeated “I won’t give up on you!” mes­sages. In November, when the test is given, I’ll see how successful my experiments have been.

We all hold high expectations for our students, but do we effectively communicate these expectations in our daily interactions? Do our students believe us when we tell them “You can do it!”, and in turn, do they believe in themselves? These are the questions that Jon Saphier, best-selling author of The Skillful Teacher and president of Research for Better Teaching Inc., answers in his new book High Expectations Teaching: How We Persuade Students to Believe and Act on “Smart Is Something You Can Get.”

Saphier provides 50 ways educators can get students to believe in themselves and their ability to grow. These strategies have been tested in classrooms across the country, and they work. In this exclusive excerpt, a middle school English teacher from Maryland shares her reflections on how high expectations strategies helped her make progress with a student who was at risk of falling through the cracks.

High Expectations Teaching is now available! Order your copy at

click here: Order your copy of High expectations teaching

Written by

Dr. Saphier is the Founder and President of Research for Better Teaching, Inc., an educational consulting organization in Acton, Massachusetts that is dedicated to the professionalization of teaching and leadership. Since 1979, he and his RBT colleagues have taught in-depth professional development programs centered on the knowledge base of teaching to educators in more than 200 school districts each year in the United States and other countries.

In 2001, he was appointed a panel member for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to study the best methods for transferring well-established educational research knowledge to classroom practice. In 2010 RBT’s Skillful Teacher model was adopted by the country of Singapore as their national program for training beginning teachers.

He is much in demand for inspirational keynotes and conference presentations across the country. Sloan-Kettering’s annual IDEA Institutes voted him “Best of the Best” for their first 25-year history. In recent years he has led large-scale district improvement projects forging working alliances between superintendents, union leaders, and school boards.

Dr. Saphier presents each year at Ron Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative Conference at Harvard. In addition to teaching the courses RBT offers and consulting to districts on organizational development, Dr. Saphier has done on-site coaching to over 1,000 principals on instructional leadership.

Dr. Saphier has a bachelors from Amherst College, and a masters degree from the London School of Economics. He was a combat medic in Vietnam. After the war he entered teaching and holds degrees in early childhood from Univ. of Mass. and a doctorate from Boston University. He has been a high school history teacher and has taught fifth grade, second grade, first grade and kindergarten. He has been an administrator and a staff developer in an urban K-8 school.

Dr. Saphier is an author and co-author of eight books, including The Skillful Teacher—soon to bring out its 7th edition, How to Make Supervision and Evaluation Really Work, How to Bring Vision to School Improvement, How to Make Decisions That Stay Made, and more recently, On Common Ground and John Adams’ Promise, as well as numerous articles. The Skillful Teacher has sold over a half million copies and is the bible of teaching in hundreds of districts around the country. It is used as a text in 60 university teacher preparation programs, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Middlebury and Williams.


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  • At Colgate University, where our powerfully social justice-focused program requires of our students that, in collaboration with their cooperating teachers, they develop unit plans that address pro-democracy-relevant issues of the moment, Dr. Saphier’s Skillful Teacher manual has been very helpful. A student who successfully had eighth grade history students research the actual legislation proposed by the 13 African-American congressmen during Reconstruction, for instance, was able to learn from that manual how to structure this inspiring unit. The student teacher was extremely well-educated and had a terrific sense of humor….but still…Dr. Saphier keeps a focus on inspiring content so we don’t get this unhelpful dichotomy between teaching our students how to create solid lesson plans and how to teach for greater social justice.

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