“Disappointment, when it involves neither shame nor loss, is as good as success; for it supplies as many images to the mind, and as many topics to the tongue.” Samuel Johnson

I had very low expectations of this weekend. The last few weeks have left me a bit punch drunk and I was looking forward to doing nothing much. In fact, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised and, all in all, I’ve had a great weekend: meeting friends, spending time with my youngest daughter, going out as a family for a meal, and going on a long hike this afternoon. I’ve heard it said before that expectations are resentments under construction and that expecting little can be a very rewarding way to live.

It struck me that this is a very different narrative to the one we enact in schools. I’ve just finished rereading David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green about a boy, very much like myself, growing up in the 80s. At one point in the story, Jason, the narrator meets an elderly Belgian woman who sets him the task of translating the first chapter of Alain Fornier’s classic novel Le Grand Meaulnes. This is a task way beyond anything Jason has ever had to tackle in French lessons at school and it seems impossibly difficult. How could anyone reasonably expect a thirteen-year-old boy to translate such a rich, complex work of literature? But because there is a clear – if unreasonable – expectation that he should be able to do this, he does it. And what’s more, he finds he enjoys it.

More and more we talk about the importance and power of high expectations – after all, no one rises to a low expectation. When we have very high expectations of students we will inevitably suffer disappointment. Every year I would teach my students in the expectation that they would get an A grade and very often I – and they – would be disappointed with the grade they actually got. But on the whole, even if they didn’t achieve as I expected they could, they tended to do better than they believed possible. If you aim at the bull’s eye you’re a lot likelier to get a dart on the board.

Being pleasantly surprised by our students is lovely. It’s always terrific when someone exceeds our expectations, but why did we not have the expectation that they would be their very best anyway? I want to make a case for the value of disappointment. Usually, disappointment is associated with helplessness and hopelessness.

I want to advocate for hopeful disappointment. Not a general sense of dissatisfaction, but a tactical, thoughtful and planned intervention to prevent students being content with ‘good enough’.  I want to suggest that as teachers we should set our faces against mediocrity and lack of effort. Ron Berger talks about work either being excellent or unfinished. This is, I think, a powerful way of framing the discussion: If your work isn’t excellent then it’s not finished. Crack on. Of course we can (and possibly should) have a sliding scale of excellence. We can acknowledge when a child has sweated blood but hasn’t met the standard of other students who’ve turned out passable work without effort. I want to urge teachers to be foster an attitude of disappointment in the efforts of our students, not so much their outcomes. And not because we should seek to make students feel bad about the efforts they’ve undertaken but because we expect miracles.

None of this is to urge a lack of compassion. Of course we need to be sensitive to children’s prior experiences of failure; we need to inspire and instill the self-belief required to unpick the well-worn internal narratives that tell them I can’t; we need to be waiting, supportive, but disappointed and tell them, you can. Maybe we’d do better sometimes to conceal our instinct for kindness and to tell them, never mind. Maybe they‘d do better if we shook our heads and said, I think you can do better than this.

Being disappointed all the time is probably a terrible way to live but could be a great way to teach. If you’re not disappointed in your students, maybe, just maybe, your standards are too low.