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Lean In and Listen

We need to listen to kids more, especially when it comes to how they perceive their education. Allow me correct that statement. We need to listen. Period. If given the opportunity, the kids in our classrooms will tell us a lot. The trick becomes whether we have the willingness to listen and the courage to act on their wisdom.

For the past several weeks I have been setting an alarm three mornings a week, providing administrative support at one of the middle schools located in the district I retired from. I've found that I don't mind getting up early to trudge off to engage with learners and teachers in that gritty and highly personal enterprise called "teaching and learning," or as I prefer to call it teaching for learning. It is genuinely enjoyable, though not to the degree that I would recind my retirement! But, it has afforded me a renewed perspective as I continue in my efforts of education advocacy, while (hopefully) offering some measure of benefit from my experience to the school's administrative team and a degree of meaningful support in the daunting task of running a school; particularly in the waning weeks of the school year.

While this particular school is well established, this has been the first year for its administrative team. Wisely, they have elected to observe, while collecting data and perspective, before mounting any substantive efforts to re-brand or redirect the culture, the structures or the instructional practices they inherited. During one of our administrative conversations, I asked about the inclusion of student voices in their arsenal of information, and offered to conduct some student focus groups to measure the temperature of satisfaction among the student population. They eagerly consented.

I have long held the opinion that education should not be something that is done to children, but rather it should be done with them. Offering this belief is precisely how I began the six focus groups I conducted last week. We structured the experience to include two distinct 45 minute conversations with each of the three grade levels. Student participants were thoughtfully selected to be truly representative of the total student body; considering socio-economic and racial/ethnic diversity, as well as the broad patterns of academic success and behavioral history. The result? Six groups of amazingly articulate and insightful adolescents and young teenagers that offered me four and a half hours of delightful interaction. Did I learn anything meaningful to pass along? Fasten your seat belts!

The format was simple. I used my "So Much" protocol, guiding the discussion with the three open-ended questions. (See my January 21st post.)

- What do you like "so much" about . . .?

- What is it about . . . that you don't like "so much?"

- What idea or suggestion could you offer that, in your opinion, would make . . . "so much" better?

Their responses to the first two questions were largely predictable for this age group as they highlighted friendships, the need to have more socialization time, that they didn't have enough time to access the restroom between classes and that the cafeteria lunches were "gross." But, as the minutes ticked by, and they became more comfortable with our process, these students got really honest and down to earth; doing as I had encouraged them to do - "speak your truth."

It became abundantly clear that these students, regardless of whether they were average performers or "rock star" achievers, really cared about what they were being taught and how they were being taught. Here is some of what they told me.

  • They told me . . . teachers are creating stressful pressure on them by not paying attention to their total work load when they assign things or schedule tests. They lamented that teachers "pile it on," all at once, and expect that high quality work will result. "It’s really hard to manage!”

  • They told me . . . teachers don't consider the needs, feelings and best interests of students when assigning our work load. (This sentiment was shared by 87% of the participants in this particular group.)

  • They told me . . .many teachers don’t seem to appreciate kids who think differently or have unusual ideas. They perceive that teachers believe that there is only one way to think and do things, and suggested that some of them do better when they are allowed to use different approaches that work better for them.

  • They told me . . . that some teachers don’t help them as much as they need. They indicated that individual help was frequently not available when they needed it.

  • One girl told me . . .“When I’ve been absent, I am given a homework sheet to complete without any explanation or opportunity to learn what it’s about. This is not helpful. It’s stressful.”

  • They told me . . . some teachers give us long lectures when they don’t like our behavior. "They think it will make a difference, but it doesn’t.”

  • They told me . . . some teachers think that when they don’t have their work completed on paper, it is because they’re lazy or don’t care. They think that teachers forget that maybe it’s because the students don’t understand. "Their reaction makes us feel unimportant or that we don’t matter.”

  • They told me . . .that some teachers don’t make sure that students really understand. They suggested that the material is taught once with the expectation that students will get it. "But, they don’t check or really know.”

  • They told me . . . that students are afraid to ask some teachers for help because they could be embarrassed. Teachers say “How do you not understand? You need to pay attention.”

  • One student confided . . . 'I’m not being challenged.”

  • They told me . . . that they needed to be taught in more interesting and engaging ways. “Teachers don’t teach to the individual needs and interests of their students; or their strengths.”

  • Finally, they told me . . . that they need new ways of teaching; that a lot of the time the instruction they receive is "boring.” (100% of the members of the focus group where this comment was made agreed that the instruction they experience was frequently “boring.”)

To be clear, I am not citing these reports as any form of judgement, criticism or an indictment of anyone's motives or instructional practices. Please read them for what they are - the perceptions, attitudes and opinions of a representative group of middle schoolers in a specific school. These comments might be isolated or could very well be representative of students' thoughts in schools all over the country. Of course, we will never know unless we ask. However, I firmly believe that any of us would be ill-advised to be dismissive of these statements. It would be arrogant, if not unprofessional, to read these comments and conclude: "They're only kids. What do they know?" They know, or at least feel, a great deal.

I believe that as professional educators, or anyone with an interest in the effectiveness of our public education system, we have a moral and ethical obligation to listen to student voices. This obligation extends to allowing student perspectives to promote active reflection and dialogue.

- What are they telling us with comments like these?

- Are any of their concerns reflected in my instructional practices?

- What questions should we be asking to better understand where they are coming from?

- What actions should we take as the appropriate next step now that we are aware of how our students are feeling?

As we concluded our time together, I thanked each group for their candor and honesty. I also made sure that they understood, sadly, that I was not in a position to offer them any promise of change. The only guarantee I could commit to was that their message would move forward, as I assured them that they had genuinely been heard.

I think they were good with that - someone cared enough to listen.

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