Classroom culture: high expectations and challenge

Growing a strong classroom culture is the aim of every teacher.  In order for this culture to mature and bear fruit, it must be rooted in challenge and expectations.  In this week’s teaching forum, geography teacher Hannah Townsend shares her reflections on what she has done over the past four years to develop the highest possible standards in her classroom.

Picture2The starting point for Hannah was to separate out expectations and challenge.  She explained that this was problematic as the two are so completely intertwined.  However, after wrestling with the chicken-and-egg nature of the two concepts she decided that her particular culture started with high expectations.  Once established these then allowed her to set and maintain high challenge.

Hannah is a particularly reflective teacher and as well as drawing on her own experience, she read a series of papers that helped her connect the dots between her own practice with the research evidence.  These are included as a bibliography at the end of this blog.  Her reflections are summarised below:

High Expectations:

  • Always modelling warmth, respect and enthusiasm.
  • I set the tone from the moment I greet the students. All uniform issues are dealt with prior to entering the room. I give a warm welcome regardless of whether it is a class that can be challenging to work with or not.
  • I welcome them with phrases such as: ‘hello, nice to see you… in you come, starter is on the board… books out, lovely to see you… let’s come in quietly… I saw you won in the football match on Thursday… did your mum pass on my praise call?’
  • I also tend to go to the door at the end of the lesson and wish everyone well but also be specific: ‘I am so pleased with how many times you put your hand up Leon… excellent effort today Charlotte… thank you for working so hard… have a lovely evening/rest of day… you were far more focused.’
  • Clear routines for behaviour.  I thank students for meeting expectations but don’t over-praise.  Praise should be valued, and have the effect of encouraging them because they believe it is earned.
  • Clear instructions – what do I expect in terms of noise level? In terms of quality of work? In terms of tier 3 vocabulary?
  • Being consistent – I use clear phrases to determine the behaviour I would like: silent work, quiet work (can whisper about work no louder) or occasionally allowed to talk.
  • Giving ‘high profile students’ the opportunity to get it right – I give them small jobs at the start so they can get small praise from the outset; this can be simple such as ‘thank you George and Carlie for handing out the books’.  I thank students for getting it right but never praise students for achieving the basic expectations.
  • I often call home. Particularly for students who often get it wrong.  They rarely get praise calls for going beyond getting the basics right – so I aim to give them an opportunity to go beyond and then call home.
  • High expectations as a teacher isn’t just about your teaching classes, it’s so important for the form group too. I’ve established clear routines for my form – I greet them, they come in quietly getting their equipment out.  If they have an issue they initially discuss it at the door and then they are silent once I walk into the room. They know I value this time and that I treat it like a lesson.  Something is always planned for them to do, whether that is group chat activities (like circle time), flash card spellings or discussing current affairs.


  • You can only challenge students if you know the material yourself:  “Teachers cannot help children learn things they themselves do not understand.” (Ball, 1991, p5).
  • I challenge by getting students to upgrade their vocabulary when articulating verbal responses. I expose them to a wide range of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary during lessons. I don’t simplify terminology at KS3: they learn the correct terms and I model this through my explanation. My year 8 and 9 classes learn GCSE standard sequences of landform formation and are taught how to use A-level terminology.
  • I read up on new areas and observe other teachers within the department.  I attend the revision classes that other teachers in the department deliver and usually learn a couple of new things that can then feed into practice.
  • I use GCSE structures and knowledge in KS3 lessons and A-Level knowledge in GCSE lessons.
  • I always evaluate my own practice – how could I challenge my class more? Was there too much scaffolding? Did I overload them with tier 3 vocabulary? Did I give them enough time to practise?
  • For key stage 3 I have been able to implement more challenge tasks by presenting new material in small chunks and practising in-between so that students have an opportunity to practise skill, evaluate and ask questions. With the basics such as learning the continents, year 7 had been tested on this a few times to fully embed the knowledge.

Bibliography of Hannah’s reading:

Expecting the Best For Students: Teacher Expectations and Academic Outcomes.  Christine Rubie-Davies, John Hattie and Richard Hamilton.  British Journal of Educational Psychology (2006), 76, 429–444

Powerful Learning, Powerful Teaching and Powerful Schools.  David Hopkins (2000)

Principles of Instruction, Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. Barak Rosenshine (2012)


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4 Responses to Classroom culture: high expectations and challenge

  1. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Classroom culture: high expectations and challenge

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader's Digest | Friday 17th November - Friday 24th November - Douglas Wise

  3. Claire says:

    Thank you for this just what I needed.

  4. John Fuller says:

    Great summary of how to get it right in the classroom Hannah! It is useful for us all to read and reflect on this and check how many of these basics we are doing!

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