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Know Thy Student

How much, a young mentee educator asked me, must I know about students in order to be most helpful to them? This was my response:

I need to see what engages and inspires my students so I can help create buy-in and encourage student ownership of our learning and our work together. Understanding student motivation allows me to tailor class work to strike a chord with and captivate them using a differentiated and personalized approach. I also need to understand their strengths and opportunities for growth within the ELA state standards. I need to evaluate and collect data on their current cognitive skills in order to stretch their skills with challenges conducive to their individual ability. Too much or too little stretch work and scaffolding can be detrimental to their growth. Finally, I’d like to know their tentative future plans. By knowing where they want to go, I can effectively incorporate standards to help them pave the way to future aspirations. Knowing the above helps me to assist students in using the skills of ELA as a vehicle for their own self-actualization.

The more I know a student, the better our relationship and the more I observe and record them growing, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Behavior problems and relationship stress between student and teacher has its root in a lack of understanding and appreciation for each person’s perspective. I have had my share of students whose views and attitudes conflict with my private ones, but I cannot allow that to affect my evaluation of their growth or detract from what must be a process of continually fostering a healthy relationship. The more the student acts up, the less I seem to get who they are. When this happens, it’s time to build a bridge. Take a special interest in said student (my favorite fake student name is Skippy) and show Skippy—don’t tell them—why you do what you do and how your qualifications can add value to their life both now and in the future. The only thing worse than negative attention is no attention, and perhaps the student is acting out because they feel this way at home and at school. Truth be told, acting out is a request to be heard and seen and known. As a young lady said to me today, “You’re the dad I never had.” I am not a father to her at school; all I have done is take an interest in who she is and how she’s developing. That’s it. No special formula, not even a concerted effort from me beyond routine conversations and suggestions I proffer to help her make her life situation better and so she’ll believe in herself the way she’ll need to to stretch toward success outside our safe school nest.

I always tell my students we have edcuator-student confidentiality (unless there is a threat of harm to self or others). I am not sure they believe this until the year progresses and they see me comfortable being vulnerable with them, sharing relevant stories from my home life, and modeling how to take risks, make mistakes, and come back stronger than before—all the while displaying as much humility and grace as I can muster. As I open up, so do they open up—not only to me, but, perhaps more importantly, to each other. We all know the social side, the interpersonal relationships and collaborative efforts, are really at the heart of the hidden curriculum in our nation’s school systems—and, for good reason. As human beings, the more we share, the more we know. The more we know, the more we can do. And as the fourth industrial revolution continues, we will need to know a lot to meet the demands of modernity and innovate our way through challenges seen and those as yet unarticulated.

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