We all remember that when Ms. Anna in The King and I encounters her students for the first time, she greets them with the song, “Getting to Know You.” That was a simple and brilliant bit of theatrical writing back then, and thankfully for several decades now good teachers have embraced this mandate to know their students’ strengths and interests and learning styles.
Getting to know your students should be the top priority for the first phase of a teacher’s school year. This is far more important than “getting on with the curriculum,” because the level of learning success is almost entirely dependent on a teacher’s efforts to know the students alongside the care involved in utilizing this knowledge.
Here’s a short list of what a teacher needs to know about her/his students:
• All the “send-up” information from last year’s teachers: ideally, this will include grades and any major testing results, a student portfolio or a sampling of student work, a teacher’s narrative on the student’s strengths, weaknesses, including a behavioral report;
• A brief profile of the student’s family—anything of interest can contribute to this profile, but certainly the preferred parental contact info;
• Any “file” reports, like professional/educational testing reports with recommendations and accommodations;
• All outside activities and hobbies the student is currently pursuing;
• Any learning preferences or specific intelligence orientations known about the student through professional/teacher reports or shared by the family;
• An assortment of the student’s hodge-podge likes and dislikes (like foods, sports teams, authors, etc.).
Utilizing this knowledge can come in many forms, from the teacher’s personable approach in the classroom, to greeting students in the morning, to the tweaking of assignments, to crafting problems, to adjusting expectations—the power the teacher possesses to engage students and keep them on an active learning path stems from this array of valuable information.
Just as valuable as knowing your students is “loving” them, which really means loving to see them grow and learn and develop through the agency of your teaching and attention to who they are and what they need. I know, love is a squirmy word to use when talking about students. The oft-used and preferred word out there is “caring.” But I always found the word “caring” to be too weak, too clinical and business-like a term. “Customer care” can be present in a teacher or in any professional or employee out there in the work world, but the quality of authentic investment in the mission of your work is what really distinguishes the loving teacher from those who are just drawing a paycheck or going-through-the-motions.
Excellent teaching can only happen when there is real emotion (call this real feelings or real motivation) driving the work of the teacher. Students can ferret this out quickly in their teacher—they can tell if a teacher truly cares about their success and fully enjoys the teaching process. Students feel confidence, affirmation, safety, and support to engage in the classroom and will be much more likely to take risks that will help them evolve toward their potential when teacher possesses these core traits.
One of my headmaster mentors used to always say, “Great teaching requires just two things: you need to know your students and love them.”
I concur, and it’s something that is intrinsic to the teacher’s being—schools simply need to be places that do not detract or take away from these traits.