Know Your Students

October 3, 2016

As a science teacher, I send a safety contract home with all the other beginning-of-the-year paperwork for my students and a parent, guardian, or other family member to read together and sign. Their signatures indicate that that they read and understand the course information and syllabus, the school’s electronics policy, the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, and the class safety rules. The truly important questions, though, are on the other side of the paper. As Joanna Schimizzi wrote in her last post, “Ban the Word ‘Parents,” families differ in ways that are important for teachers to understand. Families can also be a rich source of information about each student. I constructed the first iterations of these questions in 1997 when I was a candidate for National Board Certification; in my portfolio, I detailed how the responses helped me get to know my students better, and how I used that knowledge to  make instructional decisions that supported their learning.

Nineteen years later, as I prepare to renew my National Board Certificate for the second time, I still want to know what each family expects for their child in my class. Every year, the answers I receive inform the ways I support all 180-plus students, and their families. Here is a summary of some of the most common comments I’ve collected over the years, from families explaining what they want for their kids.

Families want me to:

  • be enthusiastic about our learning
  • reassure them that their child will learn to work with chemicals safely
  • treat their children courteously and with respect
  • be available for any help their child might need with understanding concepts or learning skills
  • know their child doesn’t always like to ask for help
  • communicate with them if there are any issues with their children, be they behavioral or academic – assignments missing, failing grades. They want to hear from me if they call or email
  • actually teach the class and not just hand out papers and expect students to understand
  • know they can’t help their child with chemistry homework
  • provide career guidance and prepare their children for college
  • know their children are kind, funny, clever, interesting, talented, intelligent, hard-working, conscientious, scared, stressed, anxious, are quick learners, struggle with math, are gifted artists and writers and musicians
  • be a really great teacher

Families want their children to:

  • be challenged appropriately
  • enjoy science and learning
  • "just please pass this class"
  • be able to ask questions and get answers delivered in a way that doesn’t make their child feel like an idiot
  • be given clear expectations
  • learn science in a way that it will be useful in the rest of their lives

Families want to know what they can do to help their children be successful and they want me to know their child: to know that Rosa loves her dogs more than anything; that Abby can make a fabulous lasagne; that John needs frequent check-ins for understanding; that Katie lost her glasses and won’t be able to get a new pair for three more weeks; that Zach is having surgery in October and will miss at least a week of school; that Mindy has anxiety attacks before tests but responds to reassurances; that Jose wants to be a physicist and will take AP Chemistry and physics both next year; and that Roger wants to take over his grandfather’s machine shop after graduation.

How am I changed by knowing all this? I can plan more effectively to help every student reach their potential. I can better craft the learning environment to meet each student’s needs. I know student seating preferences, who is reserved about speaking out, who doesn’t read aloud in class, who doesn’t have technology at home, who lives part-time with different families. Students appreciate the fact that I know a bit more about them as I plan our work together.

What do you do to know your students better? What do you do with the knowledge once you have it?

Luann Lee, NBCT

Luann Lee became a National Board Certified teacher in 1998 while teaching chemistry in Ohio. She came to Oregon where she now teaches chemistry and AP/dual credit chemistry at Newberg High School.  She currently serves on her district’s Teaching and Learning Council and is a candidate support provider in Oregon. Luann is a founding member and current president of Oregon Accomplished Teachers, Oregon’s National Board network A graduate of The Ohio State University and Wright State University, Luann holds a doctorate in science education from Ball State University. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter as @Stardiverr.