What Do You Expect?

What Do You Expect?


Last week Jennifer, Jack, Cece and I saw a very powerful documentary film now out, called “Waiting for Superman.” There are enough scenes dramatic, controversial, or just really powerful, that it wouldn’t be possible for me to spoil the movie for you – even when I tell you that for me the most unavoidable take away from this journey through urban schools is that we are squandering so very much talent and quashing so much hope.

The movie was special for us because we went with our daughter Cece who had recently returned from a year as a student assistant in a high dropout high school in New Orleans. Cece had experienced the individual human disappointments, as well as some of the infuriating systemic failures. And she took the movie hard. We spoke a couple days later and the movie was still on her mind. She told me that she had heard from friends still in New Orleans about one of her favorite students.  Cece had encouraged this freshman to apply and she was accepted into one of the special magnet programs for this fall. Unfortunately, she’s gotten pregnant over the summer. “It’s only the environment” Cece said to me, “that has me at U of M while she is pregnant at 15. She’s so much like me: likable, kind, fun-loving, and smart. But, there she is with so many challenges in front of her now. ”

Yesterday that conversation came back to life, as I sat next to Judge Tom Boyd at a wedding reception. He told me about how much time he spends with some of the young people who come before his court, how he challenges them, encourages them, and uses the tool of probation to leverage changes in their behavior. “I give them a chance,” he said.  Sometimes it works. He said he honestly feels sometimes like he’s the first person who has complimented and encouraged some of these kid-adults. Often it doesn’t work. And sometimes, “more often than you would believe,” he told me, “they thank me on the way out of the court, when they’re on their way to jail.” Probation failed, or they failed probation, and Tom sentences them to jail time.  Do you find it as stunning as I do (and as the Judge still does) that they are thanking him?  How little encouragement must a person have had in life to thank the judge who’s sentencing them to jail time?

Okay, so you’re thinking: What in the world does this have to do with me on a Monday morning? Well, it’s all about expectations. Greatness doesn’t appear on its own. Somebody expects it. Yet so often we slip into our rules and routines – as parent or manager. And we think others are static entities. They are A students or B students, good workers or generally slightly above average, or unpredictable or basically steady. And if they’re not totally static, then we figure any control of how good they are, lies with them. But, the fact is we have so much more power than that. We shape possibilities for others. The boss like a good parent is relentlessly: challenging, and encouraging, jostling and teaching, coaching, holding feet to the fire, and especially believing some more, and pointing out talent and celebrating results. None of us are born with overflowing confidence. Most of us – even the over-achievers – have a deficit when it comes to what we think we can do. Great parents and great leaders create a space of possibility around those they lead. And the last thing they do is give up their belief in and expectations of those they lead, because no follower wants to be, and no one should be, given up on.

As the great Churchill said “never, never, never give up.”Believe, expect and encourage to

Lead with your best self,


  • This post is powerful. I am currently a principal of a leadership magnet school that is undergoing the “Leader in Me” process based on the principles of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. What you say pertains to my school. The demographics of the school are 90% free and reduced lunch and 92% minority. Many or the students have no one in their circle that has ever even thought about college. To them, graduating high school is their main accomplishment. You touch on my firm belief that those things don’t matter if the children can begin to really believe in themselves. We start each day with a morning assembly where i lead the children in affirmations about the greatness in themselves. I do this because we have to hear and say things at least 20 times before they are committed to memory. It takes even longer than that before we begin to believe what we hear and say about ourselves. We use a term that I heard at a conference this summer, Tashi Delay, it means I honor the greatness in you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I plan to copy and share with my staff. And to you,. Tashi Delay.

  • Adolescents simply need more caring adults in their life. One’s that will expect the greatness that is already right there. It reminds me of Chap Clark’s book on adolescents, Hurt, Inside The World of Today’s Teenagers, where he calls for adults to step in and love kids.
    Thanks Dan.

  • LaDonna,
    How fortunate those children are to have you! I’ve witnessed the kind of morning assemblies – often held in the hallways – and they are powerful. The biggest thing so many of us everyday leaders in positions of power forget is that we are responsible for fashioning the environment. How wonderful that you know it and are acting on it!
    Tashi Delay!

  • Thanks for this post. After 25 years working with youth in a residential setting, I am now mentoring 3-4 young men who have come out of the backgrounds mentioned. Each of them has fathered no less than 2 children, they are paying child support, working part-time, some trying to go to college, but they are lost when it comes to any of the practical aspects of living in the world. We focus on financial responsibility and discover they are spending tons of money on fast food. That leads to a discovery that they have no idea how to cook, which leads to cooking lessons. They also have few ideas about how to look for a job – which leads to other lessons. Bottom line, the deck is stacked against them. The hole they find themselves in is pretty deep and without some significant help from a life line, they will bury themselves. And most of society has no expecations that these guys will make it out. So agreeing with Ladonna – we’ve got to give them the expectations of success and let them no over and over that they can do it.

    Thanks for the reminders on this beautiful Monday morning.

  • Last weekend we spent a lot of time with our 3 1/2 year old grandson. At one point the conversation turned to “long time from now” when he will go to college and become an MSU Spartan. Not to soon to set those expectations and confidence in his ability to do well!

  • Breaking the environmental cycle for students in New Orleans, Detroit or Willow Run requires first demonstrating competent leadership by boards of education, superintendents, school principals and teachers (read: getting incompetent people out of the system). For example, The Gates Foundation is taking the lead in proving that better learning happens by placing better teachers in classrooms.

    Since many of these students are also prisoners of their home/neighborhood environment, providing an alterniative living and learning setting would be the ideal escape route.

  • Expectations are a tricky matter. They must be managed realistically, in that extreme expectations can result in depression and disappointment. Expectations are better managed in general terms, rather than giving every child the expection of going to college, when some will do better otherwise.

    The environment a person grows up in, or lives in as an adult is critical. I had a conversation with a candidate for state representative four days ago. He said the things many of us know, that is costs less to give a child a good education, and other programs to help them reach beyond the limitations of the environment, than to latter solve the problems that child will have as an adult if they did not have the benefits of a good educaiton, et cetera. The difficulty is getting the general public to pay for it. I sitll see a majority of the population saying things like “society” is not to blame. We all have some degree of responsibility for the future of our kind. The idea that a person has free will needs to be discussed in more certain terms, and that while some persons escape bad environments and the stigmas and limitations of society, they are are not the rule, but exceptional persons.

    Exactly why the general public will accept punishing criminals, but do not want to pay to prevent the behavior which leads to criminal behavior needs to be studied. We need a majority of people to understand that the expectations that a social environment sets for a child can be changed, and to all our benefit.

  • Great article. Tell Cece not to let the disappointment get to her too much. Unlike most people, she was at least willing to try and gave hope for a different opportunity to that student. It’s hard to fight years of “environmental programming”, but at least she has seen it is possible for someone to care.

  • This IS a very powerful post. As a 30 year veteran of the MDOC….I’ve had prisoners thank me for the encouragment that they get. And…many times…it’s clear to me that I was the first to ever encourage them about anything….to point out that they are capable of accomplishing what I believe they can do.

    It is truly amazing what only a little “I believe you can…” may inspire.

    But I think the idea is more powerful beyond that. Sometimes only a word of encouragement…even to a total stranger….can move a mountain. And sometimes….people are sent to you for just that reason….that little bit of encouragement. Don’t hold it back. Not to anyone. Ever ! Including yourself.

    Another thing that I’ve learned in my 57 years of living….never write anyone off. Never. People can and do make the most out of the least. And no one does anything alone.

  • You have again it the nail on the head! I have been an educator long enough to know that relationships are the backbone of education. Without that, nothing good happens. It is interesting to note that just last week I lost a job with a company hired by Detroit Public Schools as a Principal coach because I emphasized relationship building over raising test scores. Without good relationships, test scores will never rise. What students need more than anything is the encouragement of those who can serve as positive role models. We have to let them know we see all that they can be. We need to help our students dream beyond their circumstances.

    How interesting that your college aged daughter knows the importance of encouraging others and the leaders of Michigan’s largest school district (Detroit) have yet to figure that out.

  • Environment. Environmental programming.

    I read those words and I thought of something. I was reminded that we are the environment, too. The environment isn’t only the place where the children are staying with whomever they call family. It’s also the community. It’s on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, at school, at the health clinic, in whatever office the family needs to go, in the probation officer’s office, everywhere. I think it might be helpful to examine ourselves and work toward creating an environment (complete with the necessary resources) where, if not all, at least more kids can succeed.

    I’m what’s called an intensive probation officer for juveniles. “My” kids have great potential, and they are exactly who we (community, as well as family) raised them to be. I urge Cece and her friends to continue to express their discomfort with the inequalities in our culture and the inadequacies in our systems and in our communities. I hope we can all work together toward creating the environment all kids need and deserve.

  • A wonderful article about the power of one person to lift others up. We often don’t realize the power we possess; the ability to say or do one little thing that can change a person’s life and thereby, the world! Often, other people become a mirror for someone to see their true situation as well as to see their own potential. We can never set expectations too high if we do it a little at a time!

  • Dear Dan,
    Institutional Racism is a major player that ties into “expectations”. Not having seen “Superman” as yet, it strikes me that the poor level of urban education would not be allowed in most white communities. Subtle racism drives a great deal of acceptance and exceptance. Positive expectations and support are critical to success but so are the other variables needed to perform as your potential allows. Feeling safe and valued for students at school and having the books & quality teachers needed is critical if we really want America to be a great nation in the decades ahead. The point being made by a number of people lately in words is that a good education should be a civil right. This is certainly true if we believe in the greatness of this nation and are willing to invest in our most valuable resources…our children (and grandchildren). The point needs to be made now in our actions (philosophy is nice but action is essential).
    This really is an instance where “if you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” President Lincoln said: “To sit in silence when they should protest, makes cowards out of men.”
    Be well.
    Take action now.

  • Hi Dan,
    Your article is right on. I know because I am one of those kids from one of those families. However in my case it was the caring teachers who saved me during the day as I didn’t wish to go home. The first time I was punished I cried happy tears because it meant someone actually cared. I am very active in our community and serve as board chair for a credit union. I am sometimes criticized for high expectations. I know as you now know that encouragement and expectations show that individual that I believe in them and have no doubt they are capable of reaching their goals.

  • Mark John,
    Over my 30 years now watching public policy and experiencing its effects on children, the issue you cite is the most vexing. We KNOW at an early age the children whose environments are weak and inconsistent. And the systems – overburdened with other needs – ignore the screaming needs, and the problems grow worse and more costly. I wonder how and when some political leader(s) – elected, non-elected, moms, dads, etc. – will find a way to focus this issue and take it on.
    You’re right to keep it in front of us!

  • Julie,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.
    I hope you do that often with others, as it is very powerful.

  • Thank you for sharing LaDonna, my hat is off to you and it is inspiring to see that you are still working in the vineyard. I want to encourage you, they are “getting it”. I have some of your students who attend my church and I now have some of your students attending LCC, they are hearing you. Don’t quit!

  • hello to all

    As a seasoned public schools teacher, I just want to add my 2 (or perhaps 4) cents 🙂 to say that we must first see the worthiness in each and every child in order to expect anything from that child. This means that we look beyond the poverty, beyond the race, beyond the appearance, beyond the brokenness, and see within each child’s eyes the bright promise of achievement, greatness and worthiness. It is when we get beyond what society often considers “grime” and see instead the “treasure” in each child that we will no longer “squander talent” and “squash hope” while sleeping comfortably at night. If the citizens of this country, supposedly founded on religious principals, uphold them, then we will do right by all of our children; we will free them of the jagged, discriminatory educational systems through which so many of them suffer; we will do this because we truly find worth in ALL of our precious children and would never think of throwing any of them away. We will do right by our children because those same high expectations we should see in them must be embossed first in ourselves as adult leaders. I hope that I am very wrong in believing that we’ll have many sequels of “Waiting for Superman”. May the “tsk- tks” and the “that’s a shame(s)” that the movie evokes be a springboard of meaningful solutions and actions that reflect the value and love (and high expectations) that we in America say we have for our children.

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