A challenging part of being a principal is managing academic expectations. When set too high, expectations cause frustration and disappointment. When set too low, expectations can create a culture of mediocrity. Two things are necessary when it comes to setting appropriate expectations: personalization and moderation.
For Aristotle, all virtues are to be understood as the mean (moderation) between vicious extremes. Our goal is to be virtuous and avoid the two extremes. We must be diligent and create goals that challenge each learner to be their very best. At the same time, we must not push too hard, setting expectations that are unrealistic and lead to low self-esteem, frustration, and a loss of the love for learning that is innate in every child.
When it comes to expectations for academic achievement, we can push too hard. Each student is different and our expectations for each student need to be tailored to their own abilities and goals. Each child develops differently. While there are standardized math concepts, sight word lists, and expected “words read per minute” for each age level, these should be taken as rough guidelines and not held as absolute. It is not much different from developmental milestones like rolling over, crawling, or walking. Some kids develop later than others and a child that walks at ten months is not necessarily smarter or more athletic as an adult than a child that starts walking at 13 months. As long as there is consistent improvement there is no need for concern. The same is generally true for academic milestones. To demand the impossible from students with challenges in their learning is unfair and disrespectful to them as learners. We need to meet each child where they are at and tailor their programming and our expectations to their level.
The challenge as a principal is being the person that effectively holds the tension of expectations between the extremes and between all stakeholders. Parents and teachers sometimes have different expectations based on their own hopes, experiences and knowledge of student development. Setting expectations for each student that are challenging, fair, and respectful is key to working together as an effective school community.