Why You Should Have High Expectations of the Students You Lead

I’ve written about my experience mentoring young college students in leadership back in the 1990s. I led a group of six students who chose and discussed various topics each week.

I got an email from a student one evening asking who was going to choose the topic for next week’s meeting. I grabbed my laptop and replied: “I can do that.” Or, at least that’s what I thought I typed. My keypad is probably like yours. The letter “i” is right next to the letter “u.” Inadvertently, I had typed in: “u can do that.” When I showed up for our next meeting, I drew a breath to launch the discussion, and those students didn’t give me a chance to speak. One student opened our meeting with an activity; another showed a video clip and another led a discussion on the theme. Before it was over, every student played a role in our lesson, and I didn’t do a thing. They were simply doing what they thought I’d empowered them to do.

I never told them it was an accident.

Not only did those students practice metacognition, they demonstrated something I’ve come to believe over the years: students will live up or down to our expectations. When I told them: “u can do that,” they believed me.

The Pygmalion Effect

Too often, teachers, coaches and parents grow frustrated and impatient with the students they lead.  Even when we try to hide it, they can read us like a book. The impact can be negative if for no other reason than the “Pygmalion Effect.”

Did you ever learn about the Pygmalion Effect?

This principle is about managing the power of expectations. It is a fact that people rise to the expectations others have of them. The “Pygmalion Effect” is a proven behavioral theory showing how the expectations one person has for another can actually impact that person’s performance.

  • We see it at work in marriages.
  • We see it at work in team members.
  • We see it at work between parents and children.
  • We see it everyday at work between teachers and students.

The “Pygmalion Effect” is named after the Ovid tale of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues.

In Real Life

I am sure you’ve read of the many experiments that have been conducted among teachers and students that demonstrate the power of this truth. In one experiment by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal in 1964, teachers were given a classroom of students, and they were told that these students were academically high achievers; while another classroom full of students was given to a different faculty member who was told the students were low achievers. In reality, both classes were filled with average performers, who made average grades. The outcome, however, told a different story. The teacher who was told her students were high achievers actually ended up with measurably higher grades in her classroom, while the one who was told she had low performers got exactly what she expected. Low performance.

And that’s the point.

Our expectations play a huge role in our outcomes. As Rosenthal did more research, he found that “expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: they consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more,” according to a report from NPR. “It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal comments. “It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people show up in small ways every day.”

Putting This Principle to Work

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, has studied teachers for years. He learned from his experiments that it is truly hard for teachers to control their expectations. So, what I’m about to suggest won’t be easy for any of us. But—I am challenging you to try:

1. At the beginning of each day, tell yourself that despite what your students may have shown you, they possess an amazing brain and it’s full of untapped potential. This is actually true—but I find I need to say it out loud before I meet up with kids.

2. John Maxwell taught me this one: when you stand in front of someone to teach or encourage them, place an imaginary “10” on their forehead. This will remind you that on a scale of 1-10, they have the capacity to fulfill everything you ask of them.

3. Each time you look at a student, remind yourself of the strengths they possess. Then, imagine them as adults, using that strength. For instance, if you have students who enjoy science, imagine them as the next Marie Curie or Albert Einstein.

4. Ask yourself: If I genuinely believe in these students, what one or two actions could demonstrate my belief? Once you discover your answer, practice them. This will especially help you with the “late bloomers” under your care.

Remember—we and our students benefit when we leverage the Pygmalion Effect.

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Why You Should Have High Expectations of the Students You Lead