George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Hunger for Recognition

Greg was among my toughest students in a tough year of teaching high school. Physically he attended class, but academically he was missing. He was a freshman invested in his image with older students he deemed cool, and academic achievement was not a group value. He was disruptive and disengaged. But Greg began to care about school the day that study hall rules changed and he could not leave the classroom -- not even to buy snacks. He quickly became hungry and morose, and, already the enemy, I was doubly so for enforcing the rule. Before me was a hungry boy, so I emptied my briefcase of every snack I had: a soft apple, a Power Bar, Dum Dums. I put these in a pile on his desk and said that was what I had.

His face smoothed in surprise. He sat up a little and opened a notebook. The next day he brightly offered to replace the bumper on the old truck I drove.

The start of Greg's visible respect for school was simultaneous with my visible respect for him as he wanted to be seen: wild, misunderstood and in need.

To know why it is important to understand what students value, I encourage everyone to reflect on how they feel -- and perform -- when a school leader knows and acts on what is important to team members.

Now think about when a leader ignores or disrespects team and individual values. How does it affect performance?

I have learned this: discovering and appealing to what students value has the power of a "return on investment" of their eagerly engaging in and owning their learning. And that is the pedagogical gold ring.

Getting Inside Their Heads

Following are practices for uncovering student values. Each may be used alone. However, they yield more accurate information when applied as a set throughout a school year or term.

1. Ask in Writing

This shows students, from day one, that you care who they are and what they value. I have asked the following of multiple groups, from fifth graders to college sophomores:

  1. Describe your last [science/math/English] class.
  2. What did you like best about the class?
  3. What made the best class you have ever taken the best?
  4. What made the worst class the worst?
  5. What do you do when you are not in school?
  6. What is important to you?
  7. What do you expect of me, the teacher?
  8. What would you like me to know about you that I haven't asked?

For questions 3 and 4, students have one answer. Can you guess what it is?

"The teacher."

Closely read students' answers on what made a teacher the best or worst, rendering a class the best or worst experience. Ever.

2. Have a Conversation with Each Student

A one-on-one conversation can have significant results -- it humanizes you, and it provides insight on where students are emotionally. Prepare only a few questions, with the goal of gaining in-depth answers. Here are examples:

  • How is class going for you?
  • What do you enjoy about class?
  • If you could change anything, what would it be?

Listen and record the responses. Remember, when you request feedback, be willing to hear the answer. Be a compassionate observer of what you see, as well as what you hear.

Scheduling the conversations before a project or exam gives students an opportunity to ask questions they might not otherwise pose.

3. Remember When

I design and teach STEAM curricula to appeal to girls, and the fourth and fifth graders with whom I am lucky to work can keenly demonstrate Newton's Third Law of Motion. They will tell you how to save yourself should you ever be free-floating in outer space.

They easily grasp this cornerstone of physics, a lesson many others do not encounter until senior year, because I frame the learning with three things important to most tween girls:

  1. Horses
  2. Clothes
  3. Their latest crush

Dealing with a Crush is vital to girls, as it was in the dark old 1970s of my preteen years. I obsessed about boys, so now, to help explain that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," I relate force to the effect of capturing a boy's interest by ignoring or walking away from him. His interest in a girl will be equal in force, I explain, to her deflecting his request to meet at a dance or lunch. "For every action" (the girl exerting force by walking away from the boy she likes) "there is an equal” (the boy likes her, too) “and opposite reaction" (he moves toward her to further the relationship). As with boy and girl, forces always come in pairs.

Frame your physics lesson in terms of how a girl can successfully handle her tween crush -- valuable when you are 11, 12 and 13 -- and the learning soars.

The nonacademic passions, social intrigues and fads we would dismiss are among the things students value and, ironically, are a springboard for learning. What are your ideas for uncovering and working with students' values? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

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zep's picture
Education Specialist

So long as the teacher retains ultimate control over what is to be learned, including the subjects studied, there is an inherent inequity built into the teacher-student relationship which will always limit the authenticity of the response from the students. Those schools which treat the students as co-equal inhabitants of the school space have the opportunity for genuine conversations which will never be possible within the conventional power structured school.

Heidi A. Olinger's picture
Heidi A. Olinger
Educator, Social Entrepreneur + Founder of Pretty Brainy, Inc.

Part of what I hope to convey with this piece is that the attitude with which we approach our relationships with students is significant. How do we regard them? How do we regard their abilities? How do we help them hold their dreams? As an educator, I learned to loosen my grip on the learning content without losing my grip on classroom management.

Candice Smith's picture
Candice Smith
Educational researcher

Great read !! This pops up a lot of ideas, but my concerns are with the relationship building on levels that have to be a bit formal. Wont that be triggering student attitudes that might break boundaries set my teacher as a classroom control? Plus every student might not respond to this method hence introvert students will be subjected to more personality closure when they see their fellows build a relation with the teacher? Just a thought though :)

This can be a very healthy approach to engage your students so they ultimately learn but i believe well defined teachers can only hold this together..

Wanted to mention that I really love your writing style Heidi, Great share !!

Heidi A. Olinger's picture
Heidi A. Olinger
Educator, Social Entrepreneur + Founder of Pretty Brainy, Inc.

Candice --- Thank you for your compliments + comments. You are correct about a teacher doing well to stand strong in directing and leading the class. This doesn't preclude authentically welcoming the student voice. Have I had students try to cross that boundary with me? Yes, especially in my first year of teaching high school.

I would love to know the success others have had in creating this balance within their classes and ways in which they, too, made it work.

Thank you!

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

What a great article! I couldn't agree more. Too often, some students view teachers are mere rule enforces, rather than individuals who genuinely care about them and their success. I love how you mention the significance of the teacher taking steps to "humanize" herself. This helps teachers earn respect, and the rewards are what we live for. Thank you for writing such a fantastic piece.

Heidi A. Olinger's picture
Heidi A. Olinger
Educator, Social Entrepreneur + Founder of Pretty Brainy, Inc.

You are covering a lot of ground teaching history and government and journalism! You may like knowing that a core of my research interviewing students via questionnaire and one-on-one conversation took place in the journalism classroom with high school and college students. It is useful for them to experience being the interviewee.

Robert Leslie Fielding's picture
Robert Leslie Fielding
I am a semi retired teacher who is still interested in teaching.

You could try getting your guys to write Socratic dialgues to really get to the bottom of their thoughts, reasoning, motivation etc. If they write a dialogue btween themselves and themselves to get to the bottom of what they think. The important thing is for them to learn so it isn't really necessary for anyone else to read their dialogues, unless they wish it. You might just ask them to record the fact that they have written such a dialogue and then just notice how what they do and say changes.

Kara Silverman's picture

I love this article about uncovering students values. As a new teacher, I feel that I have a good understanding of what is going on in my students lives, especially with what is "in or not." I also enjoy getting to know my students in the beginning of the year and showing them that I am invested in their lives. This is a tool a college professor of mine shared with me. She told me to uncover to our students that we are humans. Teaching elementary school, students very often are shocked when they see me out in public shopping or eating. They are shocked that their teacher is a regular human just like their mothers and fathers. Showing our students that we have emotions, feelings and truly care about them show them that we truly are invested in their learning and they can trust us. Establishing this relationship is so important if you want your students to succeed. When students feel strongly about their teachers chances are they will WANT to perform better and make us happy.

This is also true about adults. I like that you compared this issue to colleagues as well. If a colleague is rude or doesn't seem to care about you or the other teachers on your team, you feel bad and often have a feeling of rudeness back to them. This applies to our students. Uncovering our students values by asking them about previous teachers, what they like or dislike, what they do at home or simply having a conversation with them so they feel that you genuinely care for them will significantly improve how you feel towards your students as a teacher but also how they feel as students towards you! The title of your article truly sums it all up. If you want your students to learn, appeal to what they like.

CherieS's picture
Seventh Grade Writing Teacher from South Texas

The comment made about "loosening my grip on learning content without losing my grip on classroom management" is very telling of a confident teacher. It seems that many educators feel threatened when they are forced to deviate from the scripted lessons. I think those classrooms would be mentioned in the least favorite classes of incoming students.
One way that I have tried to include student voice in my lessons is in my warm-ups. Each day I post a quote that students must quick-write about. After the first week, I ask students to bring in quotes that stand out to them. They love seeing the quotes with questions posted about the writing topic they chose. In addition, I try to ask what appears to be random questions that tie into lessons. For example, I ask how teenagers can receive a driver's permit. I ask them to create a quick list with a partner about the requirements and restrictions of having a permit over a driver's license. Then, begin a lesson on subordinating conjunctions and ask them at the end of the class to compare subordinating conjunctions to a learner's permit. Students leave the class saying things like "you seem so random but then everything is connected by the end ---you have to really pay attention in here." Wow---what a concept.

Your post was very helpful in that there are ALWAYS those few kids that will try to fade into the background and by conscientiously scheduling "talk times," I many be better able to reach them.

txghamden94's picture

Remember the old teaching adage, "don't smile till Christmas". The teacher-student relationship has come a long way since that saying was a teacher's mindset. Your article provides a completely different approach to the classroom. As you point out building a relationship is the first and most important goal of successful teaching. In my experiences, for example, I found that when students "know you as a person" classroom management and learning are more easily achieved. How students perceive you is an important aspect to being a successful teacher. Thanks for your insights and points.

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