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To Truly Reach Students, Sometimes We Have To Walk in Their Shoes
November 19, 2014 | Comments
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Dr. Shelley Montgomery is the instructional partner at Etowah High in the Attalla City (AL) Schools system.

by Shelley Montgomery

Recently, a friend sent me the link to a blog post from Grant Wiggins entitled “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned” and asked me what I thought.

As an instructional coach, I have visited tons of classrooms on numerous occasions. In fact, I try to go into at least two different classrooms per day. But I had never really viewed the classrooms in my school through the eyes of the students who fill the desks.

This school year we are working towards a change in the culture of our high school. We have considered what effective instruction should look like and what engaged student learners should look like. We are also participating in a motivational book study.

We are doing everything we know how to do to make our high school an effective institution where students graduate with the skills and knowledge they will need for college and for the workplace. Everything except consider what school is like through the students’ eyes. I decided to give it a try.



Shadowing our students

On Monday morning, I pulled several schedules of students who I knew to be “at-risk” for dropping out of school. These students were behind on credits and some were even discipline problems. I randomly chose one student’s schedule to follow for the day. The first thing I noticed was that my day was filled with core academic classes since I had credits to recoup.

My “at-risk” Monday schedule was:
1st period- History (10th grade)
2nd block- Character Education (required for all 9th graders)
3rd block- Physical Science (11th grade)
4th block- Algebra I (9th grade)
5th period- English (11th grade)

On Tuesday, I chose the schedule of a typical “honors” student (taking an AP class). I was really curious to see if the student experience at school was different for an “honors” student versus an “at-risk” student. The schedule was just as challenging, with academic core classes every block.

My “honors” Tuesday schedule was:
1st period- Anatomy and Physiology
2nd block- AP Biology (*alternates w/AP Lit but today was Bio) 
3rd block- Health Occupations
4th block- Honors Government
5th period- Algebra II/Trig

What did I learn from this experience?

Wow! It was powerful. I had seriously forgotten what it feels like to be a student in a desk. The uncertainty, the fear, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information to which I was exposed. I felt like a kid must feel when they are absent a lot. I sort of knew what was going on in class (because I vaguely remembered it), but I just wasn’t really confident in my knowledge.

If I was still a classroom teacher, there definitely are some things that I would adjust to benefit my students. These can be summed up in 3 areas:
  1. Expectations
  2. Environment
  3. Engagement
1. Expectations: Effective classes begin with high expectations – high expectations from teachers of their students, as well as high expectations from students of their teachers. It’s a two-way street.

In an overwhelming majority of classrooms I visited during my time as a “student,” only a small percentage had a learning target or objective visible. And, in that small minority of classrooms, not one of those teachers ever referred to the learning target at all.

For a student, this creates a lot of uncertainty. They want to please their teacher, they really do. It doesn’t seem to matter if they are elementary students or high school seniors – they want to know if the work they are doing is good enough and meets the expectations of their teacher.

So, how can they tell if they are on the road to meeting the learning goal their teacher has in mind? Difficult...especially if they don’t know where they’re going. It’s almost like getting into the car with someone, not having a clue where we are going, how long it will take, or why we are going at all. Are we prepared? Did I need to pack a suitcase? How long will we be in the car? What time are we leaving and returning? All of these are valid questions when you have no idea what’s going on.

Translate that into a classroom: How much more effective would our lessons be if we let students in on our “top secret learning plan”?

Students want to know what they are supposed to be learning… and why. They like to have something to measure their own progress by so they can judge where they stand in their understanding. How empowering would it be for students to be able to monitor their own understanding before they are given a big test? We owe it to them to make them a partner in their own learning.



2. Environment: The environment is that intangible web that infiltrates every aspect of every classroom and touches every person in the room, including the teacher. It is something that is undefined, yet defines each class uniquely. It can make (or break) classroom relationships between students and the teacher, as well as among the students themselves.

The classroom environment, while nebulous and undefined, is probably the most important factor in determining student success in the classroom. Let me explain why I make such a strong statement.
When I was a student for those days, there were classes I attended that made me love school – and those that made me want to never darken the door of the school again. So what made the difference? The classroom environment.

The classes that drew me in and made me look forward to the next meeting were those that felt “safe.” Even though I was a “visitor” for the day, the class was accepting and included me without any prompting from the teacher. These classrooms were places of open discussion and mutual respect. Students were not afraid to voice an opinion or speak up.

The teachers of these classes were openly interested in what the students had to say. Students worked cooperatively in groups or with partners. Questions were thought-provoking and dialogue between students about class topics was encouraged. Classes were conducted in a stress-free, non-judgmental fashion. As a result, discipline issues were minimal or non-existent.

Conversely, the classrooms that made me rethink my desire to be a student were those that were the exact opposite. The classroom environment was not friendly and, frankly, I just tried to hide so I wouldn’t have to answer anything. Students were singled out and put on the spot to respond.

The teachers didn’t seem interested in what the students actually thought, just whether or not they could supply a correct answer. Sometimes the teachers even answered student questions with sarcasm, heavy sighs and eye-rolling, as if they were completely exasperated by having to clear up something.

When these teachers did ask students questions, they tended to be mostly superficial on the material being covered, never any thought-provoking queries. Talking among peers was strictly discouraged, even when it was legitimately about something in class (like clarification of notes or assignment). As a result, discipline issues seemed to arise frequently in these classes.

Honestly, I felt nervous and anxious while in this type of classroom environment. Thankfully, this was a very tiny portion of the time I spent as a student. This type of environment was definitely not a common occurrence, but it did sometimes occur.

3. Engagement: High expectations and a safe classroom environment inevitably lead to students being actively, mindfully engaged in learning. There is a world of difference in a classroom where all these things are in alignment. They just click! Students are asking questions, of each other, of the teacher, and (if we could peer into their brains) probably of themselves.

The teacher is a facilitator, not the star of the show. Students have opportunities to collaborate and talk to each other. This is important, especially since students tend to learn more from their peers than from anyone else.

Did you realize that a student could possibly go to every class, all day long, and never utter a word to another human being? I think this is awful...but it sadly is the case with some students. You’ve seen them, we all have. They might be shy, or awkward, or even angry and sullen. They sit in the back of the classroom (or in the front with their head down). The teacher never calls on them, they never volunteer any answers. They simply come in, sit down, do their work (sometimes), and never cause a fuss.

Teachers should interact with every student, every day! Connecting with students is the number one way to keep students plugged in to school so they can graduate and become productive members of society. People need interaction, although sometimes, they just don’t know how to reach out. It’s up to us as educators to make the first step. We owe it to the students in our classes. We see them more than their parents do…. and, unfortunately, in some cases care about them more.



What I learned

If I could give advice to all teachers everywhere from my two days as a student, what would I tell you?
  1. Be real. It’s easy to tell which teachers genuinely connect with their kids (and who doesn’t). Share stories of your life. Help them see that life is just a series of lessons. Some don’t have parents at home to share their wisdom about growing up in this world.
     
  2. Be prepared. Students can tell if you don’t have a clear plan for the lesson. Just because you’ve taught something for years, don’t think that you can just “fly by the seat of your pants” and lecture for the entire two-hour class and they won’t know you didn’t plan a real lesson. They will. Assignments should have meaning and fill their brains, not just the time.
     
  3. Be respectful. If you show the students respect, 9 times out of 10, they’ll show you the same respect in return. Sarcasm and harsh words just show students they’re unimportant and put them on the defensive. When they’re defensive, they act out. Be respectful of their learning environment as well. Stop talking while they are copying something down. They can’t pay attention to your story and spell words they’ve never heard before.

    Sit down in the back seat of your classroom (while there are students there). Can you see the board? If you can’t, those students can’t. How about the room temperature? The lighting (especially when you turn the overhead lights off and use the projector)? Help make the learning environment free of distractions and stressors for your learners.
     
  4. Be aware. Students, like adults, need contact with others. Interact with every student, every day. Remember the students who might go through the entire day and talk to no one. Offer opportunities for students to work together and collaborate. I understand that desks in rows might make things easier for the teacher, but for the student, it makes you feel isolated, like you have no one who could help you if you need it. No one likes to feel like that!
Becoming a student for a couple of days was probably one of the most powerful things I have ever done since becoming an educator. I realize that I am in an ideal position as an Instructional Coach to be able to do this at my school. Most teachers cannot spend this kind of time in a student’s shoes. However, I think that even just visiting another teacher’s classroom during a prep period would be valuable.

Many teachers at my school are stepping into the role of a student this way. I can’t wait to see how simply stepping out of our “teacher” role at school will make a difference in the learning experiences we provide for the students we serve.

NOTE: For more ideas and information about student shadowing, download Grant Wiggins' suggested guidelines.

Shelley Montgomery received her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from The University of Alabama, as well as an Ed.S. in Science Education. Her Masters and undergraduate degrees were earned at Samford University. Before moving into instructional coaching, Shelley was a science teacher for 15 years at both the university and secondary levels, after a brief "first career" in pharmaceutical sales. [permalink for this post]
 
 
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