The concept of High-Expectations Relationships, as developed by Dr Chris Sarra, is a key strategy that many Stronger Smarter Leadership Program alumni have taken back to their schools and used to ensure shared understandings of high expectations across their school community. We were pleased to see the concept included in the AITSL discussion paper on Indigenous cultural competency in the Australian teaching workforce. High-Expectations Relationships is one of the cornerstones of the Stronger Smarter Approach, and we believe this is an important concept for all educators to understand. 

Of course, all educators want the best for all their students, and education systems have supported and promoted the notion of ‘high expectations for all’ for many years.   On the surface, this seems like the solution to taking a strength-based approach and rejecting the deficit narratives that we have seen in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.   However, as we’ve worked with educators over the years, we’ve seen that it is more complex than this.  It is important to unpack what high expectations really means and understand and articulate the difference between high expectations and High-Expectations Relationships.   

Looking beyond Western values

There are several things to consider here.  Firstly, our notions of  what ‘high expectations’ should be are built on the values of our education system – and that’s built entirely on Western values.  At the Institute, we urge educators to listen to parents and communities to understand  what they want to see for the schooling of their children.  It’s so easy to make assumptions that children are not attending school because they and their parents don’t see the value of education.  When this assumption is made, the answer becomes the ‘big stick’.  Even if that appears to have some impact in the short term, it is never a long-term answer.  

The reality is that of course every parent wants the best education for their children.  The education they value is one that will build a positive future for their children and is relevant to their experiences and lives.  Once the understanding of high expectations changes to the values set by families and communities, the answer to improving attendance and engagement is then around building relationships, valuing the strengths children bring to the classroom, and making the curriculum more culturally relevant.  This becomes a sustainable process that will last into the future.

Valuing the strengths all students bring to the classroom

Secondly, if we simply work on a view of ‘high expectations’ as performance standards, then when students don’t reach the standard at that time, this can lead back to that deficit view where it is so easy to place the fault externally with the students and their families.  It’s time to move beyond the view that ‘Indigenous education is a problem that needs fixing’.  We have to stop positioning the non-Indigenous community as the benchmark and look beyond our colonial and postcolonial paradigms.

 When we turn this around, we recognise the variety of skills and strengths that all children bring to the classroom, and we acknowledge different starting points, aspirations, and experiences.  Then we can work on a ‘high expectation’ for all students making excellent progress in their learning, and place every educator in a position of agency where they see their own role in ensuring success for every student. It becomes about high expectations of ourselves as educators, and high expectations for students, not of students.  At the Institute we describe this as every educator taking ‘Responsibility for Change’ .

Firm and Fair

Finally, it is also about how we manage the situation when standards are not met.  Dr Chris Sarra has explained High-Expectations Relationships as being both firm and fair or critically-reflective relating and equitable power relating.   The key word is relating.  It’s an ongoing process that has to start by first building a supportive relationship (the ‘fair’ aspect).  This is the equitable power relating aspects of trust, love, care, and feeling safe. The ‘emotional bank account’ needs to be in place before we can have those robust conversations about what we really mean by ‘high expectations.’

High-expectations classrooms

In all our conversations with SSLP alumni, we see so many great examples of schools building High-Expectations Relationships with their staff, their students, and their school communities.  The results are more supportive and collaborative staff environments where staff are working towards the same goal and can hold challenging conversations within the safety of the Stronger Smarter framework. 

With more awareness of assumptions, open conversations and greater trust, staff see themselves as ‘enablers.’ So many educators tell us this then leads to high-expectations classrooms where students have greater confidence and higher expectations of themselves and the school has more open and productive relationships with parents and communities.

Let’s make sure these conversations about High-Expectations Relationships grow and spread across all our schools.  We know It takes time and can be hard work.  However, when so many educators are telling us what a huge difference High-Expectations Relationships have made to their school and classroom environments, we passionately believe that this is an essential foundation for change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in Australia.

Find out more

Dr Sarra and colleagues have written about high-expectations relationships in the Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, and in our own Institute position paper.

Sarra, C., Spillman, D., Jackson, C., Davis, J., & Bray, J.  (2018).  High-Expectations Relationships:  A Foundation for Enacting High Expectations in all Australian schools.  The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education.  49(1), pp32-45.  Published online in 2018.  First View.   doi 10.1017/jie.2018.10

Stronger Smarter Institute (2014).  High-Expectations Relationships.  A Foundation for Quality Learning Environments in all Australian Schools.  Stronger Smarter Institute Limited Position Paper.