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What if a student’s job was to get to know one teacher well?

August 20, 2011
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In my post on Mentoring as a better measure of a school, I wrote about how Richard Light has transformed Harvard’s advising system to place great emphasis getting students to see the benefit of getting to know professors very well. Light emphasizes this so much that he tells his advisees that this is their “job”—get to know one professor very well each semester.

I completely agree with Light, and I think it’s the main reason we should continue to fight for small class sizes in order to foster an environment in which these relationships can take place. If a student forms strong relationships with adults, particularly in the early high school years, the possibilities for that student expand a millionfold, since the student suddenly has a personal guide to help them explore the world of ideas.

Today I tried to hold a discussion about this with my students. I re-enacted Light’s “What is your real job? ” script and we tried to brainstorm why it might be beneficial for students to develop strong relationships with their teachers. From the conversation, it seems like this is a somewhat new notion for many of my students—many of them have an image of teacher as a distant rule enforcer, and think they’d rather spend time with friends than their teacher (not seeing that it’s possible to do both). But eventually, I think everyone in my class began to see that no matter what your goal may be—grades, wealth, fame or simply wanting to learn more, getting to know a teacher well can be a great boost in that direction.

From there, I asked the following question—”If these relationships are so important, what can students and teachers do to help build them?” Lots of great ideas came up for getting beyond the “how was your day?” “Fine” conversations that dominate many interactions. I also asked students to try to think of some of the things their teachers may do to try to engage them in a conversation and they thought of all sorts of examples.

Finally, we shifted to feedback, and I tried to present the notion of feedback as an ongoing conversation between teacher and student. I tried to get my students to think about the feedback on the paper from their English teacher as trying to start a conversation, rather than simply assign a grade.
I write tons of questions, comments and thoughts on student papers. Even on the “what is understanding?” activity, I write suggestions for books or websites to check out. Rarely do I hear back from students, but that’s no reason to stop—I’m under no illusions that I can be a successful mentor to each of my students, if I get one student to check out ViHart.com, I consider that a win.

I also think many students are, at first, more comfortable with some form of written/electronic conversation than face to face discussion. So this year, I’m going to try a few other approaches, including a shared google document between each student and myself to use for ongoing feedback, as well as Shawn’s pretty awesome BlueHarvest feedback system.

This year, I want to start more conversations with students that help propel them places.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tara permalink
    August 21, 2011 12:03 pm

    I think that relationships btwn teachers and students are really important. With a good relationship, students are more willing to open up, take risks and ok with “failing”. I think feedback is really helpful, I always write back on comments people give me on my paper, although they never see that… I think technology also acts like a good starting point for building relationships, even though it can start off impersonally.

    Also, a mentor doesn’t have to be a teacher you actually have…

    • August 21, 2011 10:54 pm

      Tara,
      All of these are good points. I wonder why you never share your comments you write on your paper with your teacher—other than it’s hard to do. I think most teachers would be amazed if you came back with comments written responding to their comments. This actually the sort of thing google docs makes very easy. And teachers don’t just have to add comments when the work is complete—it really can be a conversation.

    • August 21, 2011 10:56 pm

      Mark,
      I teach freshmen physics, and the board meetings are a pretty essential part of the modeling curriuculum. I think there are some teachers out there who manage it with bigger classes, and maybe one of them will read this and offer some advice. Regarding the Khan academy thing, I think you’re right, but when I showed a clip last year, a number of my students loved it—they felt it was so clear and easy to understand. This year, I’m going to need to do more work to help them see why clear and seemingly easy to understand doesn’t always mean understood.

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