by Allen Mendler

Ever Wondered How Students Describe Their Best Teacher?

Funny little girl with glasses

I recently had the mixed fortune of spending a few periods in the cafeteria at a mid-size urban middle school to see what could be done to help quell the cacophonous lunchroom noise short of building soundproof walls.  While solutions to that sticky problem could make for an interesting blog, it is not the primary topic of this one.   While observing and chatting with students, I privately asked several to tell me who they considered their best teacher and why.  Without hesitation, the vast majority immediately identified the same person.  When asked what there was about this teacher that made him stand out, virtually all talked about how he would “interact” with them.  I found it curious that kids of this age would use that term, and also wondered why someone who “interacts” would be considered special.   After all, don’t all teachers “interact” with their students?   When I asked for specific examples, most had a hard time describing what they meant beyond referring to him as “regular,” so I decided to see for myself and headed down the hall to satisfy my curiosity.

Mr. C was standing outside his classroom often giving a verbal or non-verbal greeting to many students, playfully engaging with some while moving stragglers along.  From the time the bell rang to signal the beginning of class until it ended his demeanor was simultaneously friendly and firm.  Although he taught with enthusiasm, varied activities, had a sense of humor and was well organized, all traits associated with successful teachers, there were other teachers in that building who had these qualities as well.  Setting him apart were two characteristics that stood out most which I believe were largely responsible for Mr. C’s standing among students: he shared ownership of the class and he allowed them to get to know him.  Underlying these features was personal knowledge of each student, suggesting that either during class or at some other time, they had shared specifics about themselves.  He seemed to know at least a detail or two about about each.  For example, at one point in the lesson he made a point of telling one of his students how alike they seemed since both had grown up with older brothers who cast a large shadow that was difficult but not impossible to meet or even surpass.  Later on, in the context of trying to get them to understand the meaning of a “dilemma,” he disclosed a conflict he was having with his daughter that posed a dilemma for him, going so far as to seek their advice.  He seemed to gain their respect and admiration by being at sufficient ease with himself to be both teacher and regular guy.

Happy Teacher With Binder And Pen Sitting At Desk

While there is no precise formula to become or remain respected, admired and likely to be meaningfully remembered by most of your students long beyond your time with them, make your classroom a place where your students feel that you know them, they know you and the classroom is as much theirs as it is yours.  Since there are many different ways to achieve these outcomes, one size does not have to fit all.  Based on what I glimpsed from Mr. C along with variations I have observed in many other highly successful teachers, here are several ways to make these things happen.  Pick those that are most natural or require the least stretch for you.

Know your students

One of my favorite strategies that enables us to get to know our students, is empowering to them and provides us with feedback about our teaching is to ask for their opinion, particularly from those students who rarely offer much.  For example, approach one such student towards the end of a lesson or as she is leaving class and say something like, “I don’t hear from you very often during class and I am wondering what you thought about today’s lesson.  Which parts did you find most interesting or useful?”  If the student says “no” or shrugs, you might say, “Sometimes when I’m not interested in things going on around me, I think about places I like to be or things I like to do.  What are some things you like to do or places you like to go when you have a choice?”

For students who seem to not care, it is crucial that we avoid accepting their disengagement.  Realize that nobody is born unmotivated.  Kids withdraw when they think nobody cares.  During a private moment, say something like:

‘I am concerned when I see you with your head on your desk.  To me, it looks like there are other important things on your mind that are making it hard for you to really be here.  I think it is important for you to talk about those things.  What’s going on?’

Refer students for further evaluation if they refuse to engage, seem unable to answer or share information with you that extends beyond your comfort zone.

Bored Kid plays with a Toy on the School Desk on the white background

Let your students know you

Mr. C had pictures of his family and friends interspersed with photos of his students scattered on walls around the classroom.  As well, I immediately knew that he was a ‘Star Wars’ fan since he had posters, statues and other memorabilia from that film series prominently displayed.  At least five times during that 45-minute class period, he interspersed something about himself or a loved one within the lesson (One of my favorite books; Did any of you see recently on TV________?; Before I got to school today, my daughter______; I feel that way too sometimes).  Although he was not a comedian, he had fun with them.   In short, there was considerable give and take.

Allow your students to see more than the teacher in you.  Use “I statements” to share how you are affected by the things they do: “I appreciate you saying that”; “I find those words hurtful.”   Let them know your outside interests, passions and preferences by bringing them to life in the moment.  Find moments at least a few times each week to share something about yourself that may or may not have anything to do with the content you teach, particularly if it shows you being less than perfect.  Even better, look for a life lesson in the message.  For example, “For a long time, I thought it would be really cool to learn to play guitar and I finally just began taking lessons.  I am reminded that it isn’t very easy to learn something new and sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t quickly improve.  Last night was one of those times when I wanted to quit.  Do some of you ever have days when you want to quit something that’s hard?  How do you get yourself going on days like that. 

Make the difference hand writing on a transparent board

Share ownership of the classroom

My last blog was about the positive impact that involving students has on their behavior and motivation.  Mr. C starts his Monday class by assigning jobs for the week (paper passer-outer; quiz collector; attendance-taker etc) to five or six students.  He keeps a record of who has done each job how many times to ensure relatively equal distribution.  Nominations for ‘Sergent at Arms’ requiring a “second” followed by a vote, elected a student for the week whose job was to remind peers of the classroom procedures and rules when necessary.  Examples of my favorite classroom practices that give students a sense of ownership:

1.  Occasionally seek feedback.

I’d like to know two things I do that you think I should continue doing because it helps you learn and/or you enjoy them and I’d like to know two ways you think I can improve to be an even better teacher for you.

2.  Have students help each other.   Create an “I’m good at” board.  Ask students to write down one or two things that they believe they are good at.  Younger children can draw pictures.  When others have a question, concern or problem they check the board to see who might be able to help before they ask the teacher.

3.  Encourage students to contribute questions for an upcoming test and promise that at least 25% of the test will include their questions.

4.  Offer at least one “wild card” question on every test and/or assignment.  Students can pick one question they don’t want to answer.  In its place, they have to write another question that relates to the topic and answer it correctly.  This gives them not only a sense of ownership, it guarantees at least partial success.

5. Be clear in laying out your rules and expectations while simultaneously inviting your students to share theirs.

The most worthy goal for a teacher is to turn out successful students who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  Educators can influence this outcome by confidently sharing who we are with our students, taking time to know who they are and creating a classroom that belongs to all of us.

Your thoughts and suggestions are always welcome.

Future starts here against lecturer sitting in lecture hall

About the author:

Allen Mendler, Ph.D. is an educator, school psychologist and the author or co-author of numerous articles and several books including When Teaching Gets Tough, Power Struggles, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care and Connecting with Students. As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the original and revised editions of Discipline with Dignity, Dr. Mendler is a highly acclaimed motivational speaker with a wealth of practical strategies on what it takes to successfully motivate and manage difficult students.