by Erin Medeiros
I have too, too many days when teaching feels impossibly complicated. My mind is on thirty things at once, and I think I can’t actually do this job and be a mother and a wife and a sane person. WASC, ALICE, AP, AVID, grading, IEP meetings, and I need to pick up the kids and make dinner and work out. But then I’m struck with some profound moment of clarity, and I remember that teaching can and should actually be so simple.
Know our students.
It’s the origin of everything we do, a catalyst for student success, the method for preventing madness, and the solution to a wide variety of pedagogical and social problems. I’m certain the phrase “student voice” quite literally did not exist when I became a teacher, but now it’s the trendy yet obvious cure-all. Knowing what those voices have to say is our quest, our captivation, our salvation. Suddenly, student voice, the fantastical oracle, is everywhere. And that’s as it should be.
This simple act of knowing our kids is both our why and our how.
I was reminded of this most recently when I joined nearly 700 educators gathered at the UHCC Hawaii Student Success Institute. The goal was to celebrate the many recent advances in our community college system and also to expose instructors and other staff to promising practices and new perspectives on community college education. The morning began with three powerful keynote addresses, which all pointed to the need for “student-ready” colleges. As a high school teacher, I was awed by this new term! I’ve spent 12 years in an institution trying to make students “college and career ready,” so I was refreshed by the idea that many of these same students are entering into community college institutions who want to know and be ready for them.
But the highlight of the day? The student panel at lunch shared perspectives from each campus, and their resonating theme was that college and career only began to feel accessible when they felt known. One student explained that adults too frequently asked “What career do you want?” and too rarely asked “What are you interested in?” The difference may seem minimal, but it’s monumental. The former asks about a thing, a future, an achievement, while the latter asks about a person, a present, a possibility.
Among the students’ other insights that serve as simple reminders for all of us in education:
“We want to do well, but we just don’t know how to ask.” Students suggested one on one meetings, taking five minutes to check in, and providing specific resources when we notice someone is struggling.
“Hear what they’re saying, but look too for what they’re not saying.” This student, who earned a 1.9 GPA in high school, always felt that college prep was only for the “Harvard-bound” 4.0 kids. He’s now a student representative and an eloquent, compelling, motivated student and learner. He flew under the radar in high school.
“Keep reaching out.” Another student shared that he struggled and got kicked out of his high school. He knew that he seemed like a tough and distant kid but wished his teachers had continued to reach out and check in with him. He’s now finishing his AA and deciding between becoming an educator or going into medicine.
“I would’ve been an A student from the beginning if I’d had relationships from the beginning.” Relationships on campus reduce students’ fear of asking questions and seeking help. Require office hours or conferences just because. Early interactions are the start of a safe space and sense of confidence.
“Teachers don’t need to be cheerleaders, but they need to know their students.”
“Tell your students they’re doing a good job when they are!”
Too easy? Too obvious? Yes, certainly. Then again, I know I've failed at this and still do. I get complacent and swept up in the daily to-do list. I make teaching the lesson more important than teaching the kids. But I don’t have to. I learned long ago that effective teaching begins with the question: “What do I want my students to learn and how will they learn it?” But I’m retraining myself to ask first: “What will I learn about my students today?”
Teaching has never seemed so challenging, yet it has never been so simple. The students we try to reach everyday have the solutions we’re working so hard to discover. If we focus on knowing our students first, we can’t fail.