Saturday, December 1, 2012

Teacher, Know thy students

What part is the teacher to play in forming a pupil's character? In general he must both inculcate 
principles and foster the formation of habits. This requires constant activity and elaborate but definite 
knowledge. Mere acquaintance with certain common foibles of human nature is not sufficient. 
Each [student] in particular must be known intimately and trained individually. Otherwise 
there is much useless beating of the air (Tierney, 106).

This timeless quote from 1914’s Teacher and Teaching by John Tierney, S.J. presumes a fundamental, timeless truth about what effective education has always really been about: the quality of the interpersonal relationships between a teacher and her students. Whether in the context of “character” or “academic” disciplines, relationships are at the heart of differentiated instruction, as they presume that the practitioner not simply cares about her students or has a desire to get to know them as people, but actively and systematically goes about the process of gathering knowledge to determine exactly who these human beings are before her and what motivates them to learn new concepts, and more importantly, take risks. When a teacher can facilitate a willing amount of risk-taking in a learning community, then that behavior becomes infectious. Transformative practices occur both individually and communally.

While the question of the quality of relationships may seem a bit nebulous to qualify, and much less to quantify, the first standard in all certificate areas for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “Knowledge of Students”, states:  Accomplished teachers use their knowledge of child development, their knowledge of students as individuals, and their knowledge of students as learners to develop and strengthen relationships that enhance learning.

Essentially, a key component of quality relationships boils down to how I prioritize my time. How much time am I dedicating to getting to know my students and what they value? What are their interests outside of school? What do they like to do for fun? What are their hobbies and interests? What do they enjoy and celebrate within their families? What are their future aspirations?

As a teacher and instructional leader I am well acquainted with the truth in this quote from Haim Ginott, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.”

The quality of the relationships in my room are controlled by me. We have a principle on our teaching team of KVKW, pronounced "Kuh-vak-wuh", which stands for "kind voice, kind words." I remind my students of the power of their voices, and how their words are often the least important component of their conversation. My students easily recognize effective communication not so much for what it sounds like but for what it feels like. They will respond when a classmate is sharp-tongued by telling that child, "Hey, KVKW."

I am aware of the need not only to gather information about who my kids are and what makes them tick, but to actually use that data to drive instruction. A few years ago, I realized toward the end of a two year relationship with a student named Paul that he was fascinated by model airplanes, particularly those from World War II. Paul was a very reluctant writer who chronically complained of writer's block, and bemoaned the labor of the craft.
"I hate writing. It's so boring," Paul would proclaim on a near daily basis. "Why do we have to write every day in this class?" he remarked at the beginning of a narrative writing unit.
"Well, Paul, let's see," I replied. "There's plenty to write about. Think about something that happened in your life that you remember or a person that you care about."
"Nothing happens in my life. My life is boring."
I knew there had to be a way to enable Paul to access his experiences, but how?

The next day I was telling the class a story about how when I was between the ages of 11 and 13 I enjoyed building plastic models of military aircraft. I hung a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator bomber from the ceiling in my bedroom. At the end of my interest, I gathered up my painstakingly constructed models, to which I had dedicated hours of time and systematically destroyed them. Just for fun.

When I relayed how I stuck firecrackers in the crevices throughout the aircraft and watched with glee as the models exploded into tiny fragments, I noticed the mix of disbelief on the part of some and complete understanding on the faces of others, particularly the boys. I had made a connection. The kids' own stories of destruction and detonation came tumbling out.
"Yeah, Mr. Joe, I remember when I stuck a firecracker in a pumpkin and the mushy stuff went everywhere," came one reaction.
"Yeah, and I remember a time when my friend put an M-80 underneath an upside-down garbage can and launched it, like ten feet off the ground," said another.
  Paul offered, "Yeah, that reminds me of the time when my friend poured gasoline on his model car and lit it on fire. It melted into his driveway and left a black mark.”


Had I taken the time to share a few of my stories, both as structural mentor text pieces, but also as bridges to Paul's and other students' experiences, I would have enabled my kids to generate more stories with greater ease. A classic example of the link between reading and writing, yes, but also an awareness on my part to access my students' schema and utilize it to a constructive end. My students all have lives. It is my job to help them reflect on and unearth their own stories, facilitate connections between their experiences and those of others, and enable them to draw on their daily adventures to forge new learning paths. I knew then that when my students saw me as a human being, my ability to reach and teach them was significantly enhanced and they were able to perform more effectively and efficiently. I pledged to get to know my kids, many of whom were virtual strangers to me, despite the fact that I saw them for two hours a day, five days a week.

Many surveys and countless conversations later, I'd like to believe that I am better able than ever to differentiate my instruction through cultivating relationships with my students. I still have much work to do to build a consistent, disciplined approach that maximizes the information I glean with the productivity of my students. Ultimately, I realize that the responsibility lies squarely on my shoulders. As noted by Rick Weissbourd, “The moral development of students does not depend primarily on explicit character education efforts but on the maturity and ethical capacities of the adults with whom they interact—especially parents, but also teachers.”
That’s me.


  1. Knowing our students and guiding them towards knowing themselves is such a key practice in helping them be successful lifelong learners.

    1. You have always been keenly conscious of that fact, Pauline.