When setting out classroom rules and telling students what you expect of them, do you ever consider turning this round and asking students what they expect of their teacher?

Joanna Dixon tells how she builds a relationship with her students based on mutual respect from the first lesson. It’s risky! Are you willing to give it a go?

If we want to be reminded of good teaching practice, we often need go no further than our own classrooms. Who better to ask than the students themselves? You may be surprised to find that they know best what makes a good teacher.

It is good to start the term off with a strong sense of security and understanding, so you may wonder why I start with this unpredictable activity. We all need a booster to keep us aiming in the right direction, no matter how long we’ve been teaching. Inset can be inspiring, courses can be motivating, twilight sessions can be tiring, but this session, I believe, has proven to be the foundation of my relationship with my students. It builds a bond. Above all, it helps me evaluate my teaching.

The initial exercise only takes about 10 or 15 minutes and I think you will find it is time well invested. This is how it works:

Aims

  • To build mutual respect between students and teacher;
  • To help students evaluate how they learn best;
  • To help us, as teachers, find out whether we are doing a good job.

The First Routine Step:

When we meet a class for the first time, we do the usual; it is accepted practice to set boundaries and make clear exactly what we expect from our students. I explain how we will be working as a group, give an outline of the kind of behaviour I expect from the class, arrange seating and lay down fairly firm codes of conduct so that students are aware from the outset what I expect from them.We know that this security is what many students really want in a classroom, so that a happy learning environment can thrive. The next step in the lesson, without fail, always throws the students and, to start with, they sometimes seem unable to handle my request.

The Unexpected Step:

Now they know exactly what you expect from them, explain that you would like to know what they expect of you as their new teacher. How do they learn best? What kinds of lesson do they expect from you? What kind of lessons do they enjoy? In what way do they expect you to manage the class?

Have they got any good tips for you? In groups of three or four, I ask the students to brainstorm their expectations and requests, so that I know more about how they like to learn. Now that VAK learning is language many teachers and students are familiar with, students can consider letting me know their preferences.This takes them about 5 or 10 minutes to complete, and once they get started, they soon roll!

The Sensible Step:

At this point, you are hoping they are not writing all sorts of totally impossible and ridiculous requests, so gently remind them that the purpose of the exercise is to help you understand how you can help them learn successfully. It is important to establish that this is their opportunity to let you know exactly what they expect from you. Inevitably, someone will ask for no homework, and I explain that I have to work within the school homework policy, but that it is reasonable to let me know what kind of homework is useful.

The Respect Step:

Gather the responses on the brainstorm sheets, and tell the students that you shall read them and consider them very carefully because their opinions and ideas are going to help you to teach them better. Usually, I type them up or create a class poster; some editing is necessary, as many students will write similar requests. The list could then be prioritized in pairs so that the class reaches a consensus on what they feel is the most important issue. I haven’t tried this, yet I might just give it a go! I am still experimenting with this after several years. You now have a list from the class of their expectations, which will serve as an aide-memoir when planning lessons.

When I did this activity for the first time, I was doing some research as part of a MEd module (Sheffield University Distance Learning Programme). I was expecting students to ask for all sorts of outrageous impossibilities verging on anarchy, and I was worried that they would just be looking for the easy life. Amazingly, this has never happened, but I suppose it is possible. In reality, the most extreme request I have ever had was to consider having a pet goldfish! On the whole, the surprising thing is that the vast majority of students I have met do know how and what we can do to help them learn and achieve successfully and happily.

What they really want:

  • ‘Make us do fun things as well as boring stuff’
  • ‘Listen to what we think as well as telling us what to do’
  • ‘Don’t explain and talk for ages and go on and on’
  • ‘Give us a chance’
  • ‘Give us active lessons and games to play’
  • ‘Let us finish our sentences…’
  • ‘Be hard on bullies’
  • ‘Make lessons interesting’
  • ‘Be firm but fair’
  • ‘Make it fun’
  • ‘Be strict, but not too strict’
  • ‘Push us to achieve our ambitions’
  • ‘Give clear explanations so we understand’
  • ‘Make us feel involved’
  • ‘Always smile’
  • ‘Respect our opinions’
  • ‘Be patient when we don’t understand’
  • ‘Give us short breaks’

Some Don’ts:

  • ‘Don’t go on and on and on’
  • ‘Don’t patronise us’
  • ‘Don’t shout’
  • ‘Don’t discriminate’
  • ‘Don’t make it boring’
  • ‘Don’t moan’
  • ‘Don’t be in a bad mood’
  • ‘Don’t talk too much’

At St. Augustine’s, we have a regular fortnightly slot in ‘Friday Briefing’ when we share good practice, and I had reservations about sharing this idea as I worried that if it is overused in a school, students might suffer from overkill.

The Evaluation Checklist Step:

Most importantly, continue to use the students’ ideas as a checklist. If it is displayed on the class-room wall, it will serve as a reminder of the good practice that you want to be remembering in every lesson. I have found this to be a brilliant way of making sure that I am catering to the needs of all the students. At the end of a unit or module of work, students are used to evaluating their learning and setting targets for themselves. Similarly, the list will reappear and students can be asked to evaluate your teaching. I told you this was risky!

In all honesty, I really like this bit! It gives me a real boost to hear that I am doing okay and the students really do appreciate being asked. I tell them that I am keen to improve my skills too, so together we consult the checklist and they tell me how I am doing. Alternatively, I ask them to imagine that they are writing my school report. Do tell students that you respond well to encouragement, just like them! This fits in well with parent/teacher meetings and it gives students an opportunity to set me targets. At this point, you can enjoy the reassurance that you are giving the students good learning experiences; however, you also have to be prepared to confront the gaps and your shortcomings. I give them four simple questions to consider:

  1. How do you feel during my lessons?
  2. Do my lessons meet your learning needs?
  3. How can I improve the way you are being taught?
  4. What, if anything, would you like to see change?

If you can feel comfortable with asking your students what they think of your teaching and your lessons, you will find that they are able to put their finger very quickly on the areas that need improvement. In my opinion, the greatest benefit from this evaluation process is the follow up because it is this that enables me to gauge the needs of a class. This feeds into my CPD and what I am learning about my own teaching. It fosters a climate for exchange between student and teacher and this evaluation of the teacher’s expertise helps the students believe in school being a learning partnership.

Recently, my Year 10s have been able to let me know that they:

  • are finding the pace at which we are moving through the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ too fast for them;
  • need more time to get quotations down in class discussions;
  • would appreciate more kinesthetic learning activities to help them get into the characters’ shoes;
  • have found the grammar starters (to help meet their writing targets) very useful.

I have found students’ comments to be wholly productive and enlightening and probably quite similar to those that a colleague or Ofsted inspector might make. I have made a targets list to remind me of the needs of each class so that I can build these into my lesson planning. When my Year 9 students told me a few months ago that sometimes I go on and on too much when they already understand the instructions, I felt I needed to speak with the students separately who needed differentiation. Maybe it is just that I like the sound of my own voice!

I have come to learn that children want their role models to be happy, smile a lot, not be moody, be kind and understanding, have a good sense of humour, be enthusiastic, be supportive, approachable, patient and helpful. Not too much to ask, is it? At the same time, they always show their need for firm, fair discipline. Students want us to make their learning enjoyable, varied, fascinating and challenging.

Admittedly, I have not tried this activity yet with my most challenging groups; I tend to use it with students with whom I feel confident, although I do plan to try this with a challenging group this September. Watch this space! TEX

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