Schools are about more than learning; they are about experience(s). They help shape us in our present and future and those experiences stick with us long past our time as students. Unfortunately, this can either shape us in a positive or negative manner.
I asked this question of educators recently:
(I encourage you to look at the responses from the original tweet.)
What you will notice is that in a lot of the responses, what people experienced as a student in the K-12 system, has helped shaped people today, whether it was from a negative or positive experience:
The experiences we have in school are extremely important and shape much of what we do today. Personally, a lot of what I do today was shaped both negatively and positively by my experiences in school, as it was by many others.
Because we all know that this has such an impact on the lives of our students both during and after their time in school, it is important that we think about what we do each day. Your actions this year could be what a student not only remembers for the rest of their life but shapes them long past your time.
In a video I often share in workshops students come back to talk to an educator at the end of their career, and one student shares this thought with their former teacher:
““I will cherish the impact you have had on my life forever.” Student
It is an extremely important job and that quote from a student is a humbling reminder of what educators do.
But what we need to understand as educators is that a student’s input in their own experience is paramount. The best way to show students that their voice matters is by ensuring you give them the opportunity to be heard.
Because of this, here are five questions to think about asking your students as you start off this school year to help shape their experience with you.
1. What are the qualities that you look for in a teacher?
We are quick to share our expectations of our students to our students, but do we give them the opportunity to share their expectations of us? If students have been in school for a few years, the teachers that they have connected with the most obviously have had some impact. I am not saying that you should change your entire personality to suit each child, but I think that understanding what they have connected with in the past would make a difference.
When students look back at their education career, they should not only be able to name one teacher that had an impact.
2. What are you passionate about?
What I do not want people getting mixed up with here is that I am saying, “Ditch the curriculum and focus on your students’ passions only!” Knowing what a student is passionate about not only helps you bridge connection to their learning, but it also helps you bridge connections to them as human beings.
Years ago, we did a school-wide “Identity Day” (led by our awesome Assistant Principal at the time, Cheryl Johnson), where all students and staff would share one thing that they were passionate about in a display that people would be able to walk around. This process really made a connection for me as I would watch teachers connect much of the curriculum to what piqued the interest of the students, which made it much more relevant to them. For example, if I loved sports, could you bring that into mathematics instruction? It also helped see the empowerment in the students when they were passionate about something they were sharing, which made for much better relationships with our community.
3. What is one BIG question you have for this year?
Jamie Casap states, “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. Ask them what problem they want to solve.” Whether this is tied to your course or not is entirely up to you, but giving students the opportunity to stoke their own problem-finding/problem-solving abilities in your classroom is one that will only empower students while stoking curiosity.
Will Richardson talks about how important curiosity is to future success:
The most “successful” (and you can define that just about any way you want) people moving forward will be the most curious. The ones who are constantly asking questions. The ones who are always wondering “What if?”
Don’t just ask this of your students at the beginning of the year. Ask them throughout. Check their progress, see if their question has changed, or if there are any ways you can support them. Empower students to be the leaders of today, not only tomorrow.
4. What are your strengths and how can we utilize them?
If you are challenging your students (as you should be), at some point you will find their weaknesses. Far too often, we place too much emphasis on that throughout the year. By starting with students asking by what they are strong at, it will let students know you value their gifts, and that you are not there to “fix them” but to help them get better.
According to Psychology Today, there is growing evidence that focusing on strengths leads to more confidence, creativity, and happier lives (amongst other things), but do our students feel that we are there to fix them or to unleash their talents and gifts. This is not to say that weaknesses don’t matter, but when you start with strengths, and tap into them, students (like staff) feel that you are not trying to fix them, but just make them better.
5. What does success at the end of the year look like to you?
The hard thing about this question is that students will often say what they believe the adults want them to hear. Maybe adding something like “outside of your grades” (no student wants to do poorly in your class or curriculum, whether they are interested or not), might help them think about something deeper that will last with them past their time at school. How you define and characterize success, could be different from me, as it could be for your students. Find out what their important measures are for this year and help them get to that point.
My success is not defined by you, nor your success defined by me. Yet helping students clearly identify what it means to them and how they can get there, can help them significantly not only in the school year, but build important habits that go beyond school. Many (including adults) learn to identify successes through the eyes of others and often compare themselves. This practice is not helpful and can lead to feelings of inadequacy. If we decide our own measures of success, feel comfortable learning from the successes of others as well, it puts us on a constant path of growth, while learning to focus with “the end in mind.” This is important skill at any age, but it does not hurt to start this with our students.
These are not THE five questions, but just some ideas that might help you shape the year with your students. Obviously teaching at different levels will give you different opportunities with students, but no matter what you teach, it is important to listen to your students at the beginning of the year and ask for feedback to move forward, not only after they have left your care.
I would love to know what questions you would suggest to start off the year with your students and why it is important. An important way we can serve our students is by getting to know what works for them and moving backward from there. This research into the children in front of you is crucial to help create a year that they will not forget, but that can make a tremendous impact on them moving forward.