How to Keep Your Standards High Without Seeming Too Tough on Students

There’s a fine line between being strident in our expectations of students and being branded as “too tough” on them. I’ve seen many teachers whose admirable desire to instill rigor and high expectations puts them on the wrong side of that line, creating an impression that they don’t like children or that they’re being mean to them.

Teachers setting high standards for students need to be careful about how tough they are on them.Be careful in just how much of a drill sergeant you want to be. If your treatment of the children becomes an issue that starts to overshadow your high expectations, it’ll be all about you defending yourself and not focusing on the learning.

Here are few things to consider when it comes to heightening expectations.

Remember the best compliment

The best compliment former students can pay their teachers is that they were “tough but fair.” It may take several years, but eventually students realize that their teachers’ high expectations (and the accompanying “leaning on” them in class) were not personal. It’s just what happens when teachers want them to do well in class.

If you get this balance right — keeping your treatment fair across the board — students will realize you’re not being tough on them because you don’t like them.

Communicate caring

It’s OK to be steely-eyed and unyielding as long as you keep driving home the point that your high expectations are a form of caring. Remind your students that it would be easy to ignore them and their lack of growth, but you’re willing to invest the time and effort to hold them to a higher standard.

They need to know you’re creating more work for yourself because you care for them. Attention is a form of caring, and your students, even though they may protest, will eventually see your time for what it is.

Don’t wound the wounded

More often than not, the children who resist producing good work in your class (aside from those with diagnosed learning disabilities) come from homes that don’t value and support learning. Don’t make your high standards a stick to be used against them.

Instead take a compassionate, kind and high-expectations-based approach to their success. This will include your setting time aside during the school day and after school ends to get them the help that they need. They may not admit it, but they’ll appreciate what you’re doing for them. You may be the only adult giving them that much time and attention.

Build up, don’t tear down

High standards should help move students to higher places in their school life. Don’t set the bar so high that they can’t reach it and, therefore, create a downward spiral.

Use your position and expectations to help them reach new heights. If you find that too many children are getting poor grades, take a look at your expectations and make sure they are attainable. It’s downright painful to watch a well-meaning teacher continually expect too much and then turn and blame the students for a lack of worth ethic or intelligence.

Make your expectations clear

It takes quality instruction and clear directions to enforce tough, rigorous expectations. You have to be meticulous in outlining what you expect your students to do.

This is increasingly more important when your students are being asked to complete complex and trying work. Some well-meaning teachers who want their students to become more resilient will throw out an unclear assignment and then sit back and watch the students flounder. Don’t be that teacher.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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