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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

3 constructs to "getting" our students

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Picture a classroom full of students and a lone teacher, who is riffing on some personal opinion she or he has. Now picture the look on the students’ faces as they listen to their teacher. Do you see faces of engagement or detachment? Are they tuned in or glazed over? Do they agree, and if not, do they feel equipped to voice their disagreement, or to even challenge their teacher’s premise?

The first images of student reactions we conjure tell us a lot. Perhaps they are flashbacks to our experiences as students. As flashbacks go, we find ourselves replaying the extreme memories — both the teachers who enraptured us, as well as the teachers we wrote off with deep apathy or even resent. For some of us, our snap mental images of student reactions are our personal projection of how we think a class ought to be. We can see it so tangibly: lively discussion, spontaneous laughter, the dance between deep learning and whimsical moments, and the two-way reverence between teacher and students.

Such a desirable learning atmosphere can be achieved through a series of semi-related constructs. These constructs though are not a formulaic recipe for success. Rather, they serve as a guide for educators to think about. They focus on conduct more than actions, demeanor more than strategy, and the macro more than the micro.

What follows is a roadmap to “getting” our students. Getting them to work hard, getting them to be inspired, but most of all, getting to know them as they are. If you understand the importance of a student saying “my teacher ‘gets’ me,” and you wish to work toward that existence, then please read on.

Job description: Revisited

To the teachers reading this, who or what are we to our students? We say that we are “teachers.” But what does that mean exactly? Teachers of American history? Of algebra? All true, but such a belief connotes a static, one-way relationship with subject material alone. We do not teach subject material necessarily. Geometry does not have a pulse, emotions or a less-than-ideal family life. Students do. Thus we are not teachers of sciences or art. We are teachers of students. Some teach at their students. They place content over community. We must teach for our students.

Well before the Common Core State Standards, our common core has always existed. Meaning, in the classroom and beyond, the common thread tying each of us together is our shared sense of humanity, our common purpose of working and growing together. And at its “core,” the role of a teacher is service. Some teachers let their egos impede them from operating on this plane. Underlying all our actions must be our intrinsic goal of empowering these young souls for success.

By no means though does service imply servitude. On the contrary, it means leadership, dignity, humility and advocacy. We are our students’ foremost advocates. Our job is to teach them how to grow and thrive, which are fundamental human skills that transcend our subject areas of expertise. The curriculum we each create then is just another opportunity to transmit those life values, indirectly and concurrently.

Plainly put, the importance of relationships with our students supersedes content delivery. In a study cited by the American Psychology Association, “positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers’ reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance, and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance” (Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Birch & Ladd, 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2001).

Through direct conversations with students over the years, I learned how adamant they are about the positive impact of a strong teacher connection. They realize when we really care for their success in all its forms, and such loyalty fuels their work habits. Be there for them more than be there just to teach them, and they will feel it. How exactly then do we demonstrate to our students that we are there for them, as their consummate advocates?

Earning respect and eventually love

How do some groups of athletes and performers excel in their respective crafts while other groups from similar talent pools flounder? In his first year as NFL coach, Jim Harbaugh took the same players to the playoffs who only a year before were a flop. How is that possible? Those players, and our students, would say that such a turnaround has less to do with hard skills (e.g. strategies, technical skills, tangible directives) and more to do with soft skills (e.g. human connectivity, emotional IQ, attunement). As professionals on the job, we operate no differently. When we feel looked out for, protected, and advocated for by our managers, we will naturally excel. So let’s be real — what do students want from us in order to thrive?

Take their “pulse” with this simple field test: Ask your students if it bothers them when teachers take too long to grade their work. Watch the decibel level in the room instantaneously catapult. In no overstated terms: it really bothers them. And of course it should! We expect them to study fervently. We say that their grades directly ride on their level of output. And many students lack the reasonable amount of life perspective necessary to confront real and perceived academic pressures. In other words, many of them think that a poor grade on your test will actually keep them out of college and subsequently bar them from a successful life. And here we are, expecting them to meet their deadlines, while we don’t model that behavior ourselves. Such hypocrisy.

Is it any wonder then why taking an excessive amount of time to grade work they put so much effort into would make them resentful? Returning their work on time demonstrates that we understand their perspective, which is another example of advocacy, and another example of positive modeling. Our actions state, “I give deadlines, so it is only fair that I have deadlines too.” Not to mention it’s positive teaching practice, because the sooner we grade, the more they remember what they did in order to learn from their mistakes.

To be clear, I am not proposing all-night grading sprees. I am simply stating that grading work in a timely way matters to many students. Since it matters to them, it matters to us. The best way to find a plan mutual suitable for all is to include the students in the process. In my case, I offered an arrangement to my students so that I can grade both in a timely way for them, as well as give myself a realistic amount of time to do so.

We call it, “second class back.” Meaning, whenever they turn in anything more than simple “graded for completeness” work, I pledge to have it back to them on the second time they return to class afterwards. Thus if a test is on Thursday and we have class Friday and Monday, I have the weekend to return their work by Monday. It’s a mutual plan, entailing no surprises, and we all can get behind it together. Find an arrangement that works for you and your class. Grading papers understandably takes a long time? Explain that concept to them, as well as express your wish to get their papers back as soon as possible. Once you establish your intentions, get them on board for a one-week turnaround if you need it. Then stick to the agreement, and everyone benefits.

I dive into the example of grading work as one opportunity to establish student respect, as a gateway to student love and thus elevated performance. Undoubtedly, students work harder for teachers whom they love or respect, much in the same way employees go that extra mile for bosses who they have a certain reverence for. Other student respect earners are as follows:

  • Be on time if you expect the same.

  • Listen intently if you expect the same.

  • Mirror student overtures to go above and beyond by doing the same, via offering office hour meetings and out-of-class conversations.

  • Reply to information seeking emails with the information they seek in a timely way. Reply to emotional emails with some level of emotional understanding and offer to follow up in person.

  • If the room is unquestionably hot or cold, visibly make every effort to fix the situation. If it can’t happen, never badmouth the building/maintenance system, even if you’re joking. Instead acknowledge the discomfort, even say that you are uncomfortable too if you are, but find a way to impart the value of stepping up in non-ideal conditions and offer a reward for doing so (e.g., finishing five minutes early to let them hang out).

  • Put effort into creating a curriculum comprised of diverse learning methodologies, possibly including a mix of group work, individual work, projects, lecture, games, video, technology, assessments, presentations, role-playing and any other practices that show you take your job as a creator to heart.

Indeed, every teacher handbook mandates that we show up on time and reply to emails, etc., just as the list above does. But what those handbooks do not do is put those seemingly mundane actions within the framework of establishing student respect. If we say that students work harder for those teachers whom they respect and love, then every action we take can directly bolster or diminish that potential. Sustaining these and other habits will create conditions that our students will not only work hard for themselves, but they also work hard for us, the same way Harbaugh’s players over-achieved for him. Teaching is an overt act of leadership, and their performance directly hinges on how well we lead.

Where are you on the “hip to wise” spectrum?

Oh how we want to “get” our students, in all their ever-changing hipness. We start off pretty successful as newbie teachers, but eventually, we make a stark realization. Each year we get one year older, and yet, the average age in our class perpetually remains the same. Unlike with our own children, friends and family, in which as we age, so do they, the classroom scene is still comically set at the same age as the years past, straight out of a scene from Groundhog Day. This wouldn’t be a problem except for one thing – the inevitability of our diminished “hip” factor.

When I started teaching at age 26, I was hip to the bone. Now ten years later, I’m probably more hip to the skin. At age 46, I hope to make three to five hip references a week. And beyond that, any astute hipness will have to be thoroughly researched and delivered at the risk of messing up and suffering through what I call “Hipness Backfire Syndrome” (HBS) a phenomenon many seasoned educators know all too well.

There is good news though. As the years pass, we incrementally trade our hipness currency for that of wisdom. Keep this in mind and we remain both relevant and authentic. We remain relevant because although we are not consulted regarding what “turn down for what” means, we instead are consulted for deeper issues, possibly including family life, career or mental health. And we remain authentic because we concede the pop-culture connectedness without trying in vain to keep up, and instead focus on connecting through our most sincere voice.

This is not to say that the hip teachers aren’t approached for real issues and more seasoned teachers are above offering quips like, “swag.” I am simply saying that over the span of our careers, our value as educators organically falls somewhere on a sliding hip-to-wise spectrum. Celebrate that transition process, laugh through any HBS you experience, and leverage your growing wisdom to further your connections with your students.

Disclaimer: Wisdom without compassion is worthless at best and dangerous at worst. Just because we “know more” than our students does not give us the license to preach without empathy. And remember that the truly wise amongst us are ever-ready to learn from them. Meaning, the act of “getting” is a two-way street. We want our students to “get” us just as we wish to “get” them. Then together, we’ll get somewhere.

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