Teacher To Teacher: Classroom Reform Starts With “The Talk” by Melissa Halpern -- June 2, 2015
We teachers often complain, justifiably, that policy makers and even school administrators are too disconnected from the classroom to understand how students learn best. Research is one thing, we claim, but experience is another. As the only adults in the school setting who have ongoing, sustained experience with students, we’re in the best position to understand them—but do we really? Do we understand our students’ educational priorities, turn-ons, anxieties, and bones-to-pick in our classrooms and in the school at large?
The truth is that no amount of research or experience makes us experts on the experiences and perspectives of the unique individuals who inhabit our classrooms. If we want to know what’s going on in their minds, we have to ask. We have to have “the school talk.”
What have students learned that is important to them, and what do they wish they could learn? What makes them feel happy and empowered at school? What makes them feel bored, stressed, or dehumanized?
For the teacher who thinks his job is to deliver content, these questions are irrelevant. For the teacher who is interested in helping students build meaningful relationships with content, they are essential. A recent study, Caring Leadership in Schools, identifies “attentiveness”— paying attention to and understanding people as individuals—as an essential element of caring, which leads to “personal wellbeing and academic success” (Louis, Murphy, & Smylie 2015).
It makes total sense; if we understand our students and their needs, we have a better chance of meeting those needs.
But “the talk” can be scary. It will likely unveil a swarm of problems, some of them local, others systemic, and few, if any solutions. When I started having these candid conversations with my students, they said a lot of things I didn’t want to hear: “In school I feel like I’m nothing more than a number;” “Nothing I’m learning here is going to help me in life;” “I feel like I’m in prison;” “It’s hard to focus on learning when I’m stressed out about grades;” “I hate ____ (fill in the title of whatever required reading I had enthusiastically selected).”
Initially, hearing these things made me feel helpless. As a teacher, my realm of influence is mostly limited to the classroom, and even there, I work under conditions that are to a large degree beyond my control. But the more I ask and listen, the more I understand the underlying needs revealed by my students’ comments, even if what they say is not always true at face value.