I saw one my former students working at the Safeway last week. Julie’s all grown up now, but I could still see the thirteen-year-old in her smile, despite all the years that have gone by. As I talked with Julie, her whole class from long ago flashed before my eyes – sort of like my life, actually.
She was in a hand-picked class of grade 8 students who were lively and inquisitive about everything – except school. They had failed so often that they had no confidence in themselves as learners, and little reason to change that attitude. Instead of using their energy and curiosity on learning what I wanted to teach them, most of it went into talking, finding elaborate ways to fall out of their desks, flirting with each other and pretty much ignoring my carefully planned lessons.
As a relatively new teacher, I was so naive that the fact that these students didn’t do homework was a big news flash to me. That’s how different we were.
These kids had vivid personalities that demanded a lot of space. I had to learn to read them as individuals before we could even begin to understand each other, let alone get down to classroom learning. To complicate things, the realities some of them brought from home, combined with years of school failure, produced a volatile mix of bravado and fear. This created some unbridled classroom behaviour that left me, at the end of the day, raw, exhausted and wondering what on earth it really meant to be a teacher anyway. Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it.
Eventually I realized had to learn them before they could learn anything from me. We eventually began to understand and even enjoy each other. They made me a teacher in spite of myself. As June came I grieved over losing them, and I’ll always be grateful for the valuable lessons they taught me.
I learned, slowly and painfully, that to teach them meant I had to go where they were, because they surely weren’t coming to where I was. While more successful students may have tolerated my traditional way of teaching, these kids had nothing to gain by doing that. They needed something else to succeed, and it occurs to me now that asking them what they needed may have helped me figure things out sooner. I think they would have responded the same way students today do.
We’ve been doing just that – asking students in the lower mainland how they need to learn best as part of a series of student forums we’ve held over the past four years called “School Completion and Beyond”. In December I went to a forum especially for high school students in alternate programs in metro Vancouver school districts. The graphic above summarizes what they said about their learning, and in truth, what all students have said at every forum we’ve held.
Students, regardless of their levels of achievement, repeatedly tell us what works for them is:
- teachers who listen and respect them as people
- teaching that recognizes their varied learning styles and interests
- hands-on learning experiences that connect with the world outside school
They are articulate, thoughtful and clear about how they learn best. Most of all, they’re thrilled and surprised to be asked. If I’d only asked Julie’s class that question so long ago, I may not have had such a long apprenticeship with them.