A friend of mine called me recently, having returned, rather despondent, from grueling evening of secondary parent-teacher interviews for her eldest son in year 9 (you know the type – 5 minutes with each teacher, frantically rushing from room to room…) This boy is what most teachers would describe as a ‘good student’, generally conscientious, well behaved -but inclined to be on the quiet side. When the time came for the interview with the science teacher, the first comment the teacher made about him was that he didn't seem to be very interested in the subject and this was clearly a criticism rather than a question. My friend asked the science teacher to explain what he meant and was told: “He doesn’t seem to be listening, he’s often daydreaming and he never asks any questions or makes a contribution. He needs to be more focused and show more interest”
Turning to her son who was looking rather mortified by this stage, my friend asked how he felt about what had been said (note – it was my friend who asked that - not the teacher!)
“Um. I suppose I don't really say much but I do find it a bit confusing - so I don’t really know what to ask sometimes”
The conversation continued rather haltingly. ‘Average’ test results were reported together with a reminder to the boy to ‘ask questions’ when he didn't understand and to stay more focused. As they got up to leave, the teacher noticed the boy was carrying a guitar case:
“Oh – do you play guitar do you?” he asked (perhaps he was sensing that things had not gone well!)
At this point, my friend said it hit her – he doesn’t know my son at all. You see, this boy is a gifted musician. He is passionate about music, plays multiple instruments, composes and is heavily involved in the musical life of the school. She was flabbergasted that the teacher did not know this about him. It was such a strong part of his identity. She wondered what else he didn't know about her son…
In response, she simply said “yes – music is his passion – along with several other things” and walked out with a lump in her throat.
I asked her what had been so upsetting about this interchange. She said that she could not help but wonder about what effort had been made to connect with her son. Why did he leave the interview with the burden of responsibility to ask questions when it seemed the teacher had ever stopped to ask HIM anything about himself? His passions? His learning? It was nearly the end of the year! Shouldn’t this teaching and learning thing be a two way street?
You bet it should.
In order to do the best job we can of engaging students as learners – we need to know who they are as people. Even a busy secondary teacher with multiple classes to teach, can take a moment to find out the most significant thing in each students’ life – especially those students who appear less connected and less engaged in their classes. Imagine how much more engaged this boy could be if he were encouraged to enter the world of science through music! And once there – his confidence and curiosity would grow. We all remember the teachers that made us feel valued – even in the smallest of ways – those that respected and knew us. Indeed, it was some secondary teachers in my own life with whom I had the very best of relationships and who inspired me to learn (and later to teach) partly because they took time to relate to me as a person first.
“Do you know me well enough to teach me?” The challenge within this question is profound and goes to the heart of what we do. While I acknowledge that schools are not always structured in ways that allow for quality relationship building, it’s too important NOT to give this priority. Good teachers know that their job is all about relationships. If we want our kids to ask questions – to show a passion for our subjects, to engage in the concepts we bring to them, we need to do more than simply tell them to ‘pay attention’. Getting to know who our students really are as people is surely a responsibility that comes with the privilege we have of teaching them .
What strategies do you use to find out who your students are? Do you know your students well enough to teach them?
* the title of this blog post was inspired by Stephen G Peter’s book titled: “Do you know enough about me to teach me?: a student’s perspective ” (2006)