What Students Want
As part of the work my company Mindsteps typically does with our sustainable PD clients, we conduct student focus groups to determine whether the work we are doing with teachers is actually making a difference for students in the classroom. So, I've spent the last month in classrooms talking to students grades k-12. What I love about these focus groups is that the students really don't hold back. They are brutally honest about what is working (and not working) about school, their teachers, and their principals. Here's what they told me:
School is so boring. Most of the students with whom I met complain that their classes are too teacher directed. One group of urban high school students said that "All the teachers do is run their mouths. All you have to do is sit there. You really don't have to do anything else." Another group of teenagers told me that they wanted to learn but that their classes were so boring with no interactivity. In fact, boredom was the universal complaint among all the middle and high school students I met. They crave interactivity and the opportunity to, as one teen stated, "learn for ourselves."
School is too easy. Several students complained that their school work wasn't challenging enough. They wanted rigorous learning experiences rather than blindly complete homework and class work individually in their seats. They told me that they don't do homework at home because they could easily complete it during first period while the teacher was talking. Others said that some class work was so easy, they rushed through it so that they could just take a break, sit and do nothing for a bit. They raved about teachers who pushed them to go beyond the surface understanding of the subject, posed interesting dilemmas, and taught them how to solve interesting problems. Students wanted to be challenged, to engage in rigorous learning that "actually makes you think."
School is too hard. Other students worried that school was too hard for them. They wanted to learn but felt that "the teachers talk over our heads" or that they weren't getting the supports they needed to be successful. They knew that they didn't understand certain concepts but shrugged and said that the teacher just moved on anyway. They wanted their teachers to take time to help them understand course content, provide additional support in class rather than during lunch, recess, and after school, and explain things using "plain English."
School rules are stupid. Across all grade levels (k-12) students complained about school rules. This wasn't the normal teen-aged rebellion against order here. Students complained about silent lunches and the inability to use cell phones or gaming consoles during lunch, recess, and other periods designated "their own time." They complained that they didn't get enough time during the school day to interact with their friends and that their lunch and recess time was so controlled that neither were very much fun for them.
We want relationships with our teachers. The students praised some of their teachers for taking time to get to know who they were and care about them on a personal level. Those teachers were universally their favorites. In fact, in one school where the majority of the students skipped at least one class per day, the students told me that they never skip the classes of the teachers who care about them and seek out relationships with them. The elementary students I met with even wanted a personal relationship with their principal. They wanted a principal who knows them by name, cares about who they are, visits their classrooms and talks with them in the halls. Overwhelmingly, the students expressed a need for adults who knew and understood them and showed that they cared about who they were. They worked hard for the teachers that did and ignored or outright rebelled against the teachers who didn't.
We don't always do our part either. Students were honest in admitting that there was more that they should be doing as well. They admitted to skipping classes, not doing their homework, sleeping during class, and breaking class and school rules. Elementary students wanted teachers and principals who enforced the rules and held them and other students accountable for misbehaving. It was really important that school be a safe and orderly place to learn. Middle and high school students were equally effusive about teachers and administrators who "didn't let them get away with no stuff." They wanted to be held accountable.As one student put it, "the teachers who care about you don't let you get away with anything and that's all right. It means that they care about you and want you to be something." As much as they craved being held accountable, they hated discipline in the traditional sense. They didn't want to be simply punished for breaking the rules and they complained that some teachers and administrators didn't know how to let things go. One elementary student said that she understood that teachers have to enforce the rules but that "they don't have to be mean about it." Again, that relationship is so important. Students want to be held accountable, but they also want to be forgiven and they want to know that their teachers believe in them even when they misbehave.