I Could Have Been a Great Teacher

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“My voice is important.” photo credit: Eva Cristescu via photopin cc

Student survey data appeared on a large screen, and I was astonished. Presenter and Student Voice author Russ Quaglia, too, seemed amazed by the data his organization collected. Forty-nine percent of students in thousands of schools say teachers don’t care about their problems. Only 45 percent feel valued.

Quaglia, who has studied student and teacher perceptions of education and relationships for decades, shared this updated information with authors and consultants at a Corwin Press event. “This one really shocked us,” Quaglia admitted, when he told the audience that about half of students surveyed believe teachers don’t care if they come to school. How could this be?

The presenter continued to display astounding statistics, making me reflect on my own long career as an educator. I could have been a great teacher, I thought, if only. . . . If only I had this information when I was an enthusiastic, albeit strict, 28-year-old newbie.

I could have been a great teacher, if I made my students feel wanted.

As Quaglia’s data suggests, nearly half of our students think teachers don’t care if they are absent. In my classroom, students were frequently absent, some missing as many as 10 days in a single marking period. Instead of asking if they were okay or talking about their issues, I might say, “If you continue to miss school, you’ll fail.” I didn’t realize until later that this only created additional stress in their already stress-filled lives.

If I could go back in time, I’d make sure that I approached every student who was ever absent from my class, when he or she returned the next day and said these simple, but impactful, words: “Hey, Jessica, nice to see you. I hope you’re feeling better. It’s so nice to have you back.” These three short sentences (less than 20 words) might make Jessica feel wanted and valued.

I could have been a great teacher, if I knew who my students were.

Sure, this one sounds simple, and I’m guessing most teachers would declare that they do, in fact, know their students. Still, according to Quaglia’s research, 43 percent of students do not “feel accepted for who I am.” I had a “problem” student years ago. Almost every teacher I spoke to about her complained that she was a “complete disaster.” According to them, she was disinterested in school, volatile and antisocial. When she arrived at my door early in the school year, I envisioned her as all of these things, because it’s the perception I had. This is how I had treated many such students in the past.

One day, I spoke to this child individually–away from the scrutiny of her peers. I learned that she had been in foster care most of her life, was abused in a variety of ways and had been institutionalized on numerous occasions. She loved to read, write and was extremely artistic. What she hated about school were activities she felt had no value–much of what kids face in a high stakes testing world. She liked my class, she admitted, not because she was especially fond of me but “because you let me use the computer and write about anything. I don’t feel controlled in here.” From that day forward, this “complete disaster” was a treasure–one that had been hidden for far too long.

I could have been a great teacher, if I respected my students.

Quaglia’s research indicates that 38 out of 100 students believe their teachers don’t respect them. “You have to earn my respect,” I used to proudly announce to students, “but you owe it to me.” While it’s important to teach children to show respect to adults, especially authority figures, saying they have to earn your respect serves only to alienate students. For far too long, I was an arrogant educator, who believed in delivering information to groups of sponges whose only job was to sit quietly and soak in my wisdom. Too often, I was indifferent and dictatorial–far from a great teacher.

I could have been a great teacher, if I shared student success with parents.

Nearly half of the students in Quaglia’s surveys do not believe that teachers share what they do well with their parents. For many years, I shared student work with parents during conferences, and sometimes I shared what I perceived to be “bad examples.” What purpose did this have, other than to humiliate a student? Much later in my career, I created a website and blog and shared it with parents, encouraging them to review the excellent work their students were doing. All student work was shared and nothing was ever judged as “bad” work. Great teachers understand that celebrating success with parents inspires students and instills a sense of pride that leads to independent learning.

I could have been a great teacher, if I realized that student voice is the most important voice in the classroom.

For many years, my voice was the loudest in the classroom. In fact, students were told to remain quiet. I wish I always understood the power of student voice.

If I had, I could have been a great teacher.

Learn more about Student Voice

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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