After reviewing my student evaluations from the past six years when applying for tenure, I noticed that students more often commented on how I treated them rather than about what they learned. Their comments reminded me of our middle school motto in Canada, which was “Caring, Courtesy and Cooperation”. When I really thought about it, I realised that this motto really captures my approach to getting to know students.
I tell my students all of the time that I care about them. If they skip class, I ask them why they were not there or I tell them that I missed them. When they do not hand in assignments, I meet with them to find out why. If they fall asleep, I ask them if they are okay and they often are not. On the first day of class, I take a photo of students and I have them tell me something about themselves that I might not know just by looking at them. I go home and memorise each of their names. Knowing their name is a small gesture to let them know that I care about who they are and what they can contribute to the class.
I find that students and other colleagues sometimes think that being kind is synonymous with being an easy grader when really it is quite the opposite. If you provide a nurturing environment and let students know that their success matters to you, they usually work harder. Remind your students that setting high standards for them is in fact just a way of letting them know that you do care.
When teaching I have found it useful to discuss mutual respect at the very beginning of the semester. With technology today people in general expect instant responses to questions. I remind my students that I am a mom and that when I do not respond to their late night assignment questions, it is not because I don’t care, but because I have other obligations. I do not give out my cell phone number but I make it very clear when and how students can reach me before assignments are due. I remind them that their lack of organisation or procrastination does not constitute my emergency. I also let them know that I understand that life happens and that sometimes you just have to deal with the consequences.
I try to promote a classroom environment that encourages students to work together. Even when I am teaching large classes, I will involve group work. While students often begrudge having to work together, they almost always pull together and succeed. I include collaborative tasks in my lessons because they force students to become a bit more aware of the realities of the real world. There they will need to work with different personalities, deal with unexpected problems and still collaborate with colleagues to accomplish an end goal. The best projects I have seen are those that required cooperation and collaboration amongst students with many different talents.
My students know that I have little patience for drama or missing deadlines due to group member issues. Therefore they strive to accomplish their group tasks with minimal to no teacher input when faced with personality clashes or the general administration of the group. Just this semester, I gave a special award to a group of students who had to present without a group member. They did not tell me the person was missing, complain that they could not present or even let on if it had impacted their work. This kind of cooperation and support for other people is something that the world could use more.
In middle school, I won the Principal’s award for Caring, Courtesy and Cooperation and really never realised what an impact it would have on my life and career. I have been very lucky over the years to have teachers and professors who had a passion for teaching but more importantly who took the time to care and provide a nurturing environment in the classroom. I consider myself very lucky to now be able to pass on their kindness. Getting to know your students comes with its challenges and misunderstandings but ultimately it is that which they remember the most.
By Jan L. Jones
For additional Class Time articles check Issue One of our magazine.