Helping students learn starts with learning about students

December 14, 2016

Recently re-released, What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do articulates the National Board’s Five Core Propositions for teaching. Similar to medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, the Five Core Propositions are held in common by teachers of all grade levels and disciplines and underscore the accomplished teacher’s commitment to advancing student learning and achievement. This blog focuses on core proposition 1 that states, “Teachers are committed to students and their learning.”

As a high school government and economics teacher, I sometimes taught as many as 170 students each semester. Every hour a new group of students, with different ideas, personalities and backgrounds came into my classroom ready to learn. When I think about reaching each and every one of those students, it seems like a daunting task. How could I be expected to meet each and every one of their academic, social, cultural and linguistic needs? On top of that, how was I going to teach everything they needed to know about introductory government in 18 weeks?

I am now an assistant principal, and I work with 1,800 students with varying needs. I work with students on all ends of the spectrum: students who are getting ready to enter a four-year university, students who are dealing with homelessness and just need to get to school, students who have amazing musical talents, students who are entering high school as new English speakers. I am still faced with the same question I faced as a classroom teacher: how can my school serve all of these students so that they can learn.

What I know is that helping students learn has to start with knowing students. School is not about the marathon from the beginning to the end of a course. School has to start with individualization and differentiation based on what we know about kids.

I spent my first few years of teaching so focused on ensuring I was on track to "cover content" that I forgot about the time I needed to take to get to know students and how I could help them be successful. With that additional insight, I began to email parents of students and I asked them simple questions: "Does your student watch the news?", "How often does your student read for pleasure?", "Does your student work and if so about how many hours a week?"

I didn’t get all the answers, but a few things happened. I came to know more about my 17 and 18 year old students, many of whom were in their last year of high school. This outreach helped me establish a relationship with their families. This work and the information that came along with it became pivotal. These students were in an important transitional phase of their life and my job was to help them learn and grow. Suddenly I had a connection with their parents and families – an ally who could give me a glimpse of how I could help them best.

I was never able to communicate with all parents because I didn’t get in touch with all of them, but I learned the power of asking about students and making notes that might help me reach them down the line. The simple act of knowing my students transformed my teaching. I was better able to connect to students as individuals and it was no surprise that they responded in positive ways. I could meet them where they were so authentic learning could take place. I learned that in order to be equitable, I needed different approaches. Most importantly, I saw that when students understood that I had a vested interest in them, both inside and outside my classroom, half the battle was won. There was an instant trust.

As educators we must model the idea that people of good character care about others, and to care about others, we must get to know them. As we take the time to recognize that our schools are made up of incredibly diverse students, we develop the means to work with them in new and innovative ways. We may “get” that we have to know our students; doing the work it takes to actually get to know them is a different matter. Teachers who do take the time to develop individual relationships with students will see the reward. There will be a positive impact on their teaching practice on student learning and on student achievement.

Jaime Festa-Daigle, NBCT

Jaime Festa-Daigle has 14 year experience educating students at Lake Havasu High School, a large, rural high school along the Colorado River in Arizona.  She is currently and assistant principal and has taught Civics, Economics, American History, English, and Student Government.  Jaime's fondest memories are from taking students to Washington DC annually to learn more about the nation's history and government.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher, an AZ Master Teacher, serves on the AZ Teacher Solutions Team for the AZK12 Foundation, and was named the American Civic Educator of the Year in 2012.  Jaime has worked on the standards revision committee for NBPTS in the area of social studies/history, sat on the "What Book" rewrite committee, and worked with Educators Rising writing standards for high school students interested in becoming educators.