Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Today’s story starts with my eighth-grade report card. It contained five C’s and one B. Mom took one look at my grades and gave me one of her famous “You’re-grounded-for-a-week!” looks. Now don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t upset with the C’s. I was typically a C student. It was the B in math that got her goat. I had always earned an A in math. My math scores were her only hope for bragging rights and she wasn’t about to let them drop without a fight.
“How do you explain this B?” Mom asked in an accusatory tone.
Not knowing what to say, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “Miss Needlebom, my math teacher, is mean. When I don’t understand something I’m afraid to ask her for help because if you raise your hand she bites your head off.”
Anxious to right the wrong, Mom set an appointment to meet the very next day with the principal, Mr. Howard. I shuddered at the thought of my mother talking with the one man who was privy to my every action at school. Nothing good could come from such an encounter.
Mom returned from the appointment with an odd looking smile on her face. Perhaps the conference hadn’t gone so poorly after all. Maybe Mr. Howard admitted to the fact that Miss Needlebom was an inept and cruel teacher and I was now off the hook. I could only hope.
Mom was the first to speak. “It turns out Miss Needlebom suffers from the effects of polio. She’s always in pain. That’s why she’s often grumpy.”
Just my luck, I finally get the goods on one of Fairhaven Junior High School’s finest purveyors of emotional abuse and she has a story that trumps my complaint.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Mom continued. “Mr. Howard said he’d speak to Miss Needlebom about being more responsive to your questions and I’m sure that’ll help. But there’s more,” Mom continued. “As I was leaving Mr. Howard’s office he made a comment that caught me by surprise.”
What could he have said? Was it the fact that Jim Zuanich and I had broken into the gym during lunch and used the ropes as Tarzan swings? Was it that I had taken Bobby Kaiser’s metal-shop project and thrown it into the forge and then feverishly cranked the billows until Bobby’s hand-made tin cup melted into a lump of misshapen metal? Was it that . . .
“Mr. Howard said that you should be getting straight A’s,” Mom explained. “He checked into the achievement tests you’ve taken over the years and he thinks you’re potentially one of the best students in the school.”
“You’re kidding,” I said in honest disbelief.
“No, those were his exact words. ‘He should be getting straight A’s.'”
And with those six words my life changed forever. According to an official educator who had looked into my “test scores” (whatever that meant) I was able to earn good grades. More than that, I was expected to do so. Note, Mr. Howard not only talked of my potential, but he also proffered up advice. He suggested to my mom that I wouldn’t earn those A’s if I continued to leave my books in my locker. In fact, he recommended that I sit down at home for two hours every evening and study. As you might imagine, going from doing not a lick of homework to completing two full hours a night dramatically changed my grades, my self-image, and eventually my life.
I’m not the only one who has suffered from the effects of anemic expectations. Just yesterday I overheard a young neighbor boy announce to his friends that he “didn’t do math.” He made this sad pronouncement as if he had something to brag about. The night before, at a family gathering, an in-law told me that he was born with a bad temper and there was nothing he could do about it. It was in his genes. He also bragged to me that he had told an employee at work that she “wasn’t paid to think.” He thought it was funny. I saw it differently. With each of these crippling pronouncements, I heard a thousand doors slam shut.
I point out the power of expectations (to both inspire and repress) at a time in history when I’m not sure we could expect less from our students—and in many cases, from our employees. Granted, you can always find overworked employees and overscheduled students, but by and large, we expect precious little of both. In a nationwide employee survey, more than three-fourths of those polled suggested that they did not do one ounce of work more than what was required to keep them from getting fired. To suggest that they’re underachieving is a gross understatement.
At school it’s often no better. Every year I teach second-year graduate students a course that requires them to write papers that include both creative writing and critical thought. Many complain that it’s the first paper of that nature they’ve been required to write in their entire college experience. Until that point many of them have attended classes, memorized material, and taken tests where they mostly filled in bubble-boxes. In addition, many attended large classes where they hid quietly among the crowd and said very little. As a result, during years of an expensive college education, a growing number of students get away with making neither verbal nor written arguments—all because we expect so little of them.
Low expectations take their toll in every aspect of our lives. Consider the fact that for decades girls scored lower than boys in math. For years we knew that these differences stemmed from the fact that teachers expected boys to do well whereas they often tolerated girl’s poor performance. In one study even female teachers who swore that they expected the same of both genders were captured on film consoling girls with low scores, (“That’s okay. Don’t worry.”) whereas they chastised or encouraged boys who scored as poorly (“Come on, you can do better.”) Thousands of girls suffered with lower math scores because, on average, educators expected less of them.
Consider the impact expectations have on mastering a musical instrument. Last month I attended two very different recitals. One was of a granddaughter who played the violin. Her recital was made up of twenty students who cutely hacked away, goofed up, and then tried again. It was charming. You could tell that the teacher’s emphasis was on making the students feel good about themselves. I found this strange in light of the fact that they made so many errors. Three days later I attended a piano recital given by children of the same age. However, in this case each child was required to perform the piece perfectly for three lessons in a row. Next, each had to give ten performances in front of family members or small groups. Only then could they take part in the recital.
After this kind of careful preparation, each piano performance had been a bit of a wonder. The children not only hit the notes, but added a level of creative expression that I never expected. The recital wasn’t merely charming, it was amazing. In the end these kids felt good about themselves—and for the right reason. Their teacher expected excellence, coached excellence, and each performed excellently. All of this, of course, was based on the expectation that the kids, if trained correctly, could perform to a high standard.
I mentioned the importance of setting high expectations to a colleague of mine last week and he quickly jumped in with the notion that children need to be affirmed at school and at home. He then went into a long description of why telling kids that they’re terrific is important to their psychic development. When I asked him for details, he insisted that the affirmation needed to be about each child’s general worth as a human being—sort of in a Mr. Rogers way. “And then when the child does something wrong,” he explained, “you tell them ‘it’s not like them’ to do that.”
Here’s where it can get tricky. It turns out that if you tell kids that they’re good—in a general sense—they routinely discount your feedback. They know that they just had a bad thought or just did a bad thing and don’t buy into your wide-sweeping praise. The same can be true for telling them that bad behavior is not like them. They may have plenty of evidence that the behavior is indeed quite like them. In either case, when you give non-specific praise you’re unlikely to increase young people’s self-esteem and may be doing damage to your own credibility. At least, that’s the risk you take.
The point here is that when setting high expectations, focus on specific behaviors or skills rather than offering generic affirmation or setting nonspecific expectations. Then, of course, build in the elements of deliberate practice and helpful coaching and the expectations soon become reality.
Of one thing I am certain. I wouldn’t have become a better student if my mother hadn’t talked to Mr. Howard. He helped me change my expectations with six simple words—”You should be getting straight A’s.” So, as the new year begins, give yourself and others the perfect gift. Help people raise their expectations. Maybe six simple words won’t turn your life around, but I do expect that if you make it a practice to set higher standards, and then help people achieve them, well, the sky’s the limit. Or maybe it isn’t.