George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Hitting Reset to Empathize With Student Experience

The content usually stays the same, but different students require different approaches. Empathetic teachers remember what it’s like to learn something for the first time.

September 29, 2015
Photo credit: Zoe via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I have taught Macbeth three periods a day for nearly a decade. I can quote it frontwards and backwards, I see it when I turn on the TV (House of Cards and Breaking Bad), and I once considered naming my dog Spot just so that I could say, "Out damn spot, out I say!"

Pardon my nerdiness.

Yet what about my students that haven't done any of these things? What about those that are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?

Do you remember your first experience? Mine was terrible. Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade. We had to perform a scene in front of the class. It was all big words and puzzling syntax.

Yet once teachers become comfortable with the material, do they lose sight of how daunting it can be for a student? Do they fail to remember the struggles and frustrations that come with challenging work?

This is why it's important to hit reset at the beginning of each year.

Isaac Asimov wrote, "Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in."

Hitting reset allows you to forget your baggage -- about the material, about the students, and even about yourself. Hitting reset returns you to your initial resiliency, the one you had at the beginning of your career. Hitting reset opens you up to what is possible rather than closing you off to what you already know.

If you don't hit reset, the chasm between you and your students will widen and, if left unchecked, will strand them to suffer alone.

So how do you overcome what you know and what you have experienced? Here are three strategies from teachers that hit reset each year.

1. Clear Your Mind to Listen

"As I get older, the students stay the same age," says Ruth Arsenault, a high school teacher in New Brunswick, Canada. "Despite a lot of rhetoric about teenagers changing, they are generally the same animal."

Arsenault has taught for 17 years, and that has allowed her to "see the students in a more matronly way. It has allowed me to have a little bit of patience with those repetitive things."

Sometimes she wonders why her students can't grasp the skills that she has been teaching for nearly two decades, but she has to remind herself that, despite it being old for her, it's new to them.

Her strategy to hit reset is to "meet with each student one-on-one as often as I can. Really listening to them makes an immense difference. It is pretty hard to get impatient with someone whose true humanity you see. That one-on-one relationship building makes a huge, huge difference."

2. Do It Differently Every Year

"As an ESL teacher, I have never done the same thing twice," says Melissa Eddington, a kindergarten teacher in Ohio. "Every year is a new year for me. And I do it for two reasons. First, I don't want to get bored. Second, because my kids are different each year. I foster and tweak it based on their needs."

While there are specific elements of the curriculum that she needs to teach her students, they all come to her class with different levels of proficiency. Her strategy is customizing the learning experience to meet each student's needs.

"My class might be the only 45 minutes in the day where these ESL students feel truly comfortable," she adds. "I have to make it relevant, and I have to switch it up every year because I need to meet them where they are and build competencies."

3. Summer Rejuvenation

"There is a difference between teachers that just teach content and those that teach students," says Amy Adams, a high school teacher in Iowa. "You can teach content the exact same way every year, but you can't teach students the same way."

For Adams, the summer is key to her strategy. It allows her to hit reset and grow. "Over the summer, I am learning, getting new ideas, challenging myself, and stretching my mind so that I can come back in the fall rejuvenated."

This time of personal and professional growth allows her to be open to the possibilities of a new year. "I come back ready to teach students, not just teach the same old content."

Each of these three approaches to hitting reset puts students first. Sometimes our job as teacher is less about being the expert and more about having an empathetic heart. It allows us to see in our students the beginners that we once were. They, in turn, will look up to us for understanding where they are in their learning journey. And then Shakespeare will seem a little less daunting.

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