The Take Care of Me List
A middle school teacher asks students how she can best support them—and shares how they can best support her and the class.
I’ve taught enough middle schoolers to know that setting the right tone in the classroom is the foundation of joyful learning. I want students to walk out of my classroom understanding one simple thing immediately: They matter. Their preferences, their individuality—I want all of it, and I want them to understand that their learning environment should represent a partnership between students and teacher.
Therefore, several years ago, I developed an assignment to invite trusting teacher-student relationships, an assignment I call the Take Care of Me List.
Students must fill a page with a list of specific things I could do as their teacher to take care of them as learners. I ask them to explain each item with a few sentences. I purposely don’t restrict the types of responses so that each list will give me the true flavor of each student’s personality.
I write my own Take Care of Me List, as well, that I share as a model. My list typically includes student behaviors and habits that I would hope to see on our very best learning day. Rather than going through a list of rules, this is a way for me to communicate that the way our classroom functions must support all of us.
I ask them to think back to a classroom in which they felt happy to learn. What did the teacher do to support them? What might a teacher do to help them learn in the best possible way? Then I give them some quiet drafting time in class—they complete the list for homework and turn it in a few days later.
Learning From the Lists
I read the lists carefully, sometimes making notes for myself in a separate document. Students never fail to be insightful. Sure, I get my fair share of items like “Give me candy” and “Don’t give homework,” but even those types of responses reveal aspects of my students’ personalities and what is motivating to them.
Most of the time, there are several gems buried in a list that tell me things about my students’ preferences that I can easily address, whether regularly (“Please don’t call on me without warning”) or on a random day (“I challenge you to a Bananagrams match!”).
Sometimes students want to share with me things I shouldn’t do that are based on unpleasant classroom experiences in their past. Every year I read lists that include “Please don’t yell at me or the class when you’re upset.” These responses give me a clue about the type of attitude they may have about school and/or learning. They show me kiddos who might need a little extra TLC in the teacher-student relationship department.
I take the lists seriously and work hard to address the requests in class when possible. I allow my practice and classroom routines to bend to accommodate each class, depending on what they tell me they need. I find that students feel safe in and respect an environment that seems to be responsive to them and not simply a reflection of a teacher’s preferences.
The Key to Success
Perhaps the most important part of this assignment is that I write a short response to each student. Because it’s the first personal feedback I give students, I make sure that it shows gratitude for their work, acknowledges something specific from their list, and expresses genuine excitement for getting to know that student this year.
This is not the time to correct spelling or critique the quality of responses. I see this as my opportunity to have a solid, positive first interaction with each child before the school year gets going. I notice many students tucking my notes away in binders or lockers, and it’s not uncommon for me to see the notes still lingering in February or May.
I file the students’ lists away for future reference. They’re handy later if a student seems unreceptive in class because they give me some strategies from the students themselves. Sometimes the temporary cure to getting us unstuck is a Jolly Rancher on the desk (because usually the harder-to-reach student has written “Give me candy” on his list).
Finally, I return the lists to the students in the last week of the school year—partly to remind them that taking care of them was a year-long endeavor, but also to show them that telling future teachers about their needs as learners and people can help them be successful.
The benefits of the Take Care of Me List need not be confined to the classroom. Asking parents to write a Take Care of Us list about their family may provide a teacher with valuable information about what families need for educational success. And perhaps administrators could strengthen relationships by asking their staff to write lists of what they need to work best. The point of the Take Care of Me List is not about asking for and responding to a list of demands. The point is asking at all.