Know Your Students

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata he tangata he tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world? It is people it is people it is people!

The image at the head of this blog post seems appropriate given the situation in Auckland at present where our schools remain closed as torrential rain has struck the city. The stories of communities rallying around to support one another during this difficult time is a timely reminder of the wisdom of the whakatauki below the image. My thoughts are with all school leaders and teachers in the region at this time, particularly as they were preparing to welcome their students back as this weather event occurred.

As the new school year begins educators in schools across New Zealand have been involved in all sorts of orientation days with their teams, providing an opportunity to focus thoughts on what is important in terms of the teaching and learning that will take place in the coming year.

Here again the wisdom of the whakatuaki applies. Our work as educators is primarily about the people – the students we teach, the colleagues we teach with, and the parents/whānau and community members we partner with in this process.

So as your students return to school for the year, what do you see? Consider the image at the header – a collection of young people, differentiated by the clothing and boots they are wearing? What difference would it make to be able to see the upper half of these children – to see their faces, and to be able to discern something about how they are feeling by the expressions on them? You’d instantly be able to see each as an individual, coming into your classroom with individual needs and experiences, from a range of different home circumstances and backgrounds, and each with unique hopes, dreams and ambitions.

It’s easy to become distracted by curriculum reviews, changes in assessment practices, requirements for teacher accreditation or new approaches for teaching literacy and numeracy – all of which are important in our work – but if we take our eyes off the fact that we are primarily about growing, nurturing and supporting the people we work with all of that will be time wasted.

With that in mind I’ve been reflecting on some of the Teacher Only Days I’ve been facilitating over the past week. I thoroughly enjoy these days as they provide me with an opportunity to engage deeply with passionate educators who are focused strongly on developing their practice to provide the best learning opportunities for their students.

This year was no exception! In one school the staff have been on a journey of exploring what it means to be “Treaty Honouring” as a staff and school community, and how they need to demonstrate culturally responsive ways of teaching and learning. At the end of the session, one of the staff reflected how, on the basis of our day’s activity, he felt the need to take another, deeper, look at the backgrounds of each student in the school to ensure that he and all staff were aware of the cultural identity of each student, particularly those who identify as Māori.

In another school we spent some time exploring more about what it means to be promoting the concept of ‘student-centred learning’ and of learner agency, and how, in order to achieve this, teachers need to have a more detailed knowledge of each of their students. This knowledge then becomes important as teachers seek to understand the impact their teaching is having on each learner in their classroom.

Understanding each of our learners as individuals became a key issue during the COVID response where many educators were challenged with finding out more about the experience of their students outside the classroom (home and family circumstances, access to technology, support available etc.) and how this affects their engagement and performance inside the classroom.

All of this is, of course, strongly linked with the concept of wellbeing, with a plethora of wellbeing resources and initiatives emerging across the country in recent years as teachers and leaders prioritise this in their schools. It’s simply not possible to implement a successful wellbeing strategy if there isn’t a focus on meeting the needs of the individual (teachers and students) as opposed to applying a ‘broad brush’ approach in the hope that some of the ideas will stick.

In fact, the same applies to all learning – not just what we do in wellbeing programmes. An in-depth knowledge of each of our students must inform the way we design and implement all programmes of learning. In a blog post titled Do you know me well enough to teach me?” Australian educator Kath Murdoch puts it this way:

The challenge within this question is profound and goes to the heart of what we do.  While I acknowledge that schools are not always structured in ways that allow for quality relationship building,  it’s too important NOT to give this priority.  Good teachers know that their job is all about relationships.   If we want our kids to ask questions – to show a passion for our subjects, to engage in the concepts we bring to them, we need to do more than simply tell them to ‘pay attention’.  Getting  to know who our students really are as people is surely a responsibility that comes with the privilege we have of teaching them.”

Kath Murdoch

How well do you know your students?

So thinking of a practical way of approaching this, here’s an outline of an activity I used with one of the schools I worked with, that you might like to try yourself or with some of your staff. The aim is really to create an awareness of the extent to which you already know your learners – and perhaps expose areas where you need to find out more.

Here are the simple steps…
(NB – you might find it helpful to rule up a page with three columns, one for each of the steps below)

  • Step 1 – without referring to your class list, write down the names of all of the students in your class. (If you’re a secondary teacher, choose just one of the classes you teach)
    WHY? A simple challenge to see if you can list all of your students by name, and whether you can accurately spell each of their names.
  • Step 2 – beside each name, write something you know about that student that distinguishes them from others in the class.
    WHY? This will reveal something about the way you remember who each learner is, what makes them unique/different/stand out in your mind.
  • Step 3 – in column 3, now write something that you know that student is passionate about. What brings them joy or delight?
    WHY? Being able to identify something under this heading provides you with an insight into what is going to motivate and engage this student, and thus help inform the way you design learning for them.

This activity can be expanded in a number of ways with different questions used or added – but these three columns provide an extremely valuable way of testing your own knowledge of your learners. If you choose to do it at the beginning of the year (i.e. within the next week) your columns may look a little sparse (unless you’ve taught these students already) – but try doing it anyway, and then try it again in a month’s time to see just how much your knowledge of these students has grown.

The key lies in column three, where you may find motivation to spend a little time in the next few weeks to spend time with each of your learners and engage them in conversation to help you understand just what it is that excites them or brings them joy.

Armed with this information, consider the following:

  • Identify one thing you could do to get to know your students better – in a way that will help them become better learners, and better humans.
  • Consider how you will use this information to shape your approach to learning design and teaching this year.

To finish the post I encourage you to view the video below (if you haven’t already – it’s been doing the rounds a lot on social media 🙂 It provides a heartwarming story of one teacher’s approach to demonstrating that he knows and understands each of his students as an individual, and the powerful effect this has on their learning.

2 thoughts on “Know Your Students

  1. Agh Derek,
    What a wonderful read.
    I too am reflecting on what I learnt through the myriad of teacher only days…
    Above all it is he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
    Knowing our learners is so so critical and I LOVE your idea…
    Sharing your ‘post of goodness’
    Thanks again.
    Anne K

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