What Students Want: Expect Them to Succeed

Our students want and need to know they matter. How do you communicate in both words and actions that you expect all students to succeed? That failure is never even a whisper in your mind or heart? And have you asked them lately, what advice they have for you and your colleagues?

In a few short months I will send my students off to high school. I have watched them grow academically, socially and physically, for the past three years.

The upcoming transition both excites and terrifies me.

What excites me: there is so much to celebrate. Kathy and Jeffrey (pictured with me below) were recently awarded $100 scholarships for outlining their definitions of “postsecondary workforce readiness” and submitting their writing in a local essay contest. Tyler was one of a handful of featured vocalists asked to perform at a state conference for school board members and district superintendents. Daniel made significant growth in his reading fluency and comprehension, and we celebrated a major benchmark milestone at his recent IEP meeting. A substitute teacher shared she was moved by the quality of students’ argumentative writing as they passionately drafted letters calling for amnesty for child soldiers worldwide — without me in the room. Deep down I know my students are prepared to tackle high school level work.

What terrifies me: what if one (or more) of their high school teachers cannot see the growth, uniqueness, strengths and challenges each student brings to high school? What if they aren’t pushed to succeed or persevere (even if they protest the work is “too hard?”) What if teachers don’t inspire them to find a college or career pathway that matches their passions, interests, or dreams?

Recently, a local article brandishing a one sentence headline left a pit in my stomach: “Most teachers expect us to fail.”  I listened to the chilling audio clips from Kelsey Williams, Armand Green, and Kason Hill, three African American high school students who attend high school a few miles from the P-8 building where I teach and learn with my students each day. The phrase, “Most teachers expect us to fail,” continues to haunt me, weeks after hearing it for the first time.

I can’t shake the fact that I know this is too often true. Institutional racism permeates our public schools even in light of heightened awareness, culturally responsive pedagogy, and an increased focus on equitable education for all. I know there are no easy solutions to complex problems, but these words, “Most teachers expect us to fail,” propelled me to take a small action — to open the door for a conversation about equity and access with my students.

After students read the same article and listened to the audio clips, I asked them to reflect on the quote, “Most teachers expect us to fail,” to determine if they believe this is true.

Over half of the students admitted they felt that one or more teachers at some point in their school careers expected them to fail. The raised hands included students of color, English language learners, students who live in poverty, and special education students.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. I believe this is representative of what teachers know — our students who have historically been the most disenfranchised with school, still too often feel unsuccessful, invisible, and separate from the high expectations set for others, often their white middle-class peers.

Sam Adler-Bell recently interviewed Robin DeAngelo, professor of multicultural education, in the piece, “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race.” The article addresses the concept of “white fragility” and it forced me to think about the areas where I am fragile in my own classroom practice. When I think about issues of inequity in education and institutional racism, I often feel like a microscopic speck in an all-consuming labyrinth of systemic oppression. But there is one thing I can do. One thing all white practitioners can do. We can reject “white fragility,” ask students hard questions, and expect uncomfortable answers. We can open the dialogue and really listen to what our students have to say.

At the end of the lesson, I asked the class to respond to the following question: If you could give new teachers (or any teacher who has hurt or disappointed you, including me) advice, what would you tell us to do to set you and your peers up for success?

In their words, here is a sampling of the responses:

  • “Never give up on a student who is struggling. Always respect the way some students are/act.”  
  • “Push students to do their best. They should challenge you to always work harder than you think you can, and make you think differently.”
  • “I would say, no matter how hard things get I want you to remember why you came here. The reason you are here. Is it to benefit the kids and help them? Or is there another reason? Whatever it is I want you to think how you and your friends were in school…I want you to try to really listen to what we are saying. Do an educational project, hands-on so the kids aren’t always sitting at a desk…And never give up on yourself or your students.”
  • “I think I would say to push their students to try and get more out of them than they let you. Because they might know what the answer is, but just don’t want to share. And try and respect their feelings and thoughts.”
  • “Never, ever ignore us…”

Regardless of the student’s background, familiar ideas surfaced in their comments again and again. Students don’t expect us to be perfect. They expect unconditional care, respect, and support. They expect us to expect them to succeed.


  • Julia

    Middle School Literacy

    Thanks for sharing, Jessica!  It was great to read your thoughts on the complicated issues and check myself, always, on my privilege. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Always checking…

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Julia!

      I too, find myself checking my privilege more frequently these days. I believe there is power (and solutions) living in this heightened awareness. 

      For more on this topic I just read and was blown away by Jozette’s blog post “The Crusade.”  It’s a must-read and I hope you’ll check it out!

  • JenniferHenderson

    So powerful!   I am always

    So powerful!   I am always thankful for the reminder that the absolute best thing we can do for our students is to expect them to succeed.  And to understand those barriers that we might be up against – institutionalized racism, years of low expectations, feelings of hopelessness and frustration.  And that none of those things should change our expectations.  

    Thanks Jessica!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      You’re Masterful At This…


      You’re one of the best teachers I know at communicating that you believe (deep down to your core) that all students are capable of success. By meeting them where they are and forming deep, personal and reciprocal relationships, you lead by example in this area.

      I’m wondering — beyond leading by example, how do you share your expertise in this particular area with your colleagues? How do you coach around issues of social justice and equity? How might Teaching Partners seamlessly integrate equity work into their role? 

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂 

  • jozettemartinez

    New Eliza’s for a new world…

    One of my favorite college professors, the late and great Byron Melton, taught me the value of the Pygmalion effect. It is the idea that people will live up (or down) to the expectations that we set for them. In my corporate life, I was definately a protege of Mr. Melton, and he, an incredible mentor, friend, and teacher. I was fortunate that he saw a potential in me, and helped me to live up to the expectation that he saw in me.

    In reading your prose, I am reminded of an old movie, My Fair Lady, with the lovely and iconic Audrey Hepburn and the dashing Rex Harrington. The professor saw a potential in Eliza, the gal that worked in a flower shop. Minus the rich white male privilege, it’s a good movie (oh, how life changes with the awareness of inequities, lol.)

    We must find our Pygmalions, the students (and teachers) who we see potential in, and we must be on a constant quest to find those uniquenesses to build upon. I am saddened that the students KNEW their teachers expected them to fail. What would our education system look like if we expected them to succeed?

    That is the goal, and my quest.

    Thank you Jessica for this powerful and important post. I love it!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Pygmalion & the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jozi!

      I hadn’t thought about the post from this lens (and I do love a good musical! 🙂 but your thinking around the Pygmalion effect made me think about my undergraduate courses in sociology and the amount of reading/research we did around the self-fulfilling prophecy — whether we were reading about education, prisons, family structures, etc. we kept circling back to that idea that what individuals believe they are capable of — which is largely shaped by what they perceive others believe they are capable of (societal expectations) — ends up becoming their truth/reality and resulting in their success or struggle/failure. 

      I know we’ve seen this play out with our students in our classrooms. Label a student “gifted” and they often start performing in creative ways and thinking critically (or is it just that we’re attuned as their teacher to providing them with those opportunities?) Label a student “special ed” and you see sometimes see motivation, work completion and quality of work decline. I know we teach students with a range of abilities (and that learning disabilities are real barriers and challenges for students) but I’ve often wondered from a human experiment lens if we told all students they were in an ‘advanced’ or ‘honors’ course and that we knew they were placed there based on their specific strengths — how might this change student achievement? 

      Perhaps Pygmalion was the first literary study of “growth mindset.” 🙂 Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Jeff Austin

    Don’t be the reason



    Wasn't it George W Bush (of all people) that talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations? We tell our new teachers (and remind the veterans) that while we have to accept that kids will fail, we havr to do everything we can to make sure that it's not because we left something on the table. 

    And it's heartbreaking because we know it only takes one person giving up to cause the damage. 

    Good stuff. 

  • Jennifer Walker

    Great Divide Between Middle & High Schools

    As someone who supports both middle school and high school ELA teachers, I often see a disconnect…well, really a monstrous chasm…between our middle and high schools.  Many of our middle school teachers teach reading and writing through workshop, and because of this, students enjoy a level of ownership over their reading, writing, and learning.

    But then these readers and writers move on to the high school, and in some cases, the ELA content, canonized literature, and research papers drive the curriculum…not the students. As a high school teacher, I was often guilty of allowing books and lesson plans to drive my instruction, and my students were just along for the ride.  

    Allowing students ownership over their own learning can be messy, noisy, and downright terrifying. We must be constantly reminded that we are not teaching a curriculum…but are teaching readers, writers, learners, young people, all with their own passions and dreams, fears and insecurities, strengths and flaws.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Bridging the Divide….

      I too have seen this divide between middle and high schools (and between elementary, middle and high schools). What does meaningful vertical alignment look like? Where is this work happening across a system (what models are out there and how do we share/spread this work)? In other words…how might we strategically go about bridging this divide in a way that supports students and honors different practitioner perspectives and pedagogical philosophies? 

      I agree that relinquishing ownership of the learning and handing it over to students is messy work. But it’s so worth it…how do we foster this mindset in practitioners so they in turn trust students to engage in this meaningful, “messy” work? 

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂 

  • JustinMinkel

    The whisper in the brain

    Jess, wow. This piece is brilliant–the best fusion of personal reflection on practice and intellectual pondering of the larger system. I don’t know another profession that is so intensely personal but so rational/scholarly at the same time.

    I keep thinking about that idea of the “whisper”–not the words we say aloud, not the beliefs we proclaim or blog about, but the internal monologue that maybe we’re not always fully aware of.

    The race/class element you mention is most obvious when there are a handful of minority kids in a mostly white classroom, but it also comes into play in a school like mine, where my 1st grade classroom is typical: 20 Latino students, 3 Marshallese student, 0 white students.

    Racism and soft bigotry is more subtle in our school because almost all the students are children of color, ELL’s, living in poverty. Still, I’ve been troubled this year by the way I’ve heard teachers speak about our Marshallese students–similiar to the “model minority” rhetoric Ronald Reagan loved to pit successful Asian immigrants against unsuccessful African-Americans.

    The whisper in my own brain is a ruthlessly pragmatic one, and it plays out like this:

    Right now 3 of my 4 reading groups (16 of my students) are doing really, really well, in terms of both growth and general achievement. But my lowest group is in trouble, and that lowest group includes all 3 Marshallese students.

    In a typical week of guided reading, I meet with that lowest group 4 days, and only meet with the other groups once.

    The whisper is this: I’m devoting 80% of my time to 20% of my students, and I have very little to show in terms of the growth it has elicited.

    There’s a temptation to splash more water and sunlight on the more “fertile soil” instead of the “stony ground,” a way of thinking that is in itself insidious because it blames the kids’ minds, not my (largely unsuccessful) instruction.

    Any advice for us, when we’re confronted with limited time and know that the kids who need the most sometimes show the slowest growth, even when we devote the lion’s share of our time to them?

    I want that whisper out of my brain. I want the whispers to align with the words and thoughts spoken aloud. Thanks for making me acknowledge that the whispers exist–it’s the first step to silencing/transforming them.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      The Voices in Our Heads & Hearts

      Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments, Justin. I think you’re asking all the right questions and I think step 1 is always honestly acknowledging those “whispers” in our head and reflecting on our practice — both in terms of how we’re using our time, where our time and energy is going, and what the results (or lack thereof) tell us about the effectiveness of our practices. In devoting more time and energy to your students who need the most support you are working towards an equitable classroom (and avoiding “the equality problem.”) 

      The disconnect between middle and high schools was addressed in the comment above and I know this disconnect exists between elementary and secondary schools and practitioners as well. I would give yourself grace as you think about your guided reading instruction knowing that the breakthrough you’re working on for these readers is perhaps right around the corner…or that it may not be fully actualized in terms of the results and growth you want until these readers are 4th or 6th or 9th graders…

      So, perhaps some other questions to ponder are:

      • How do we empower students to really own their learning journey and communicate this journey in some form with their teachers each year as they transition to new learning communities?
      • How might a living, breathing, systemwide “body of evidence” that travels with students unlock the time, instructional practices and strategies, and results (formative data) that work (and don’t work) for each student change the equity game?  

      We have a long way to go to deprivatize our practice and individualize learning across a K-12 system for students especially during transition years (5th to 6th grade, 8th to 9th grade, etc.)

      But that won’t stop me from dreaming about a system where two-way vertical communication flows freely, honestly and is solutions-driven and student-centered. Where practitioners across elementary and secondary settings learn from one another. Where your current students join their middle school teachers (and you!) in three years for a transition meeting that includes open dialogue and reflection about where they are and what they need to grow as readers.

      Keep listening to the whispers — and share those whispers with all who are fortunate enough to serve your students in the years to come.