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How-To: Implement Standards, Curriculum and Assessment
Knowing and Caring About Your Students to Improve Student Achievement 
Judy Jones


One of the most valuable ways to improve student learning is to know your students well. And yet this can seem a daunting task during your first years of teaching when you are trying to manage lively groups of students, learn how the educational system works, and develop lesson plans from scratch. However, the time you take to know your students well will give you many rewards. Sometimes even those problems you find most difficult nearly disappear when you reach out to a student and discover what is underlying the behavior. 

Over the years, I have had students who were identified "emotionally and behaviorally disturbed" in my regular classes and have discovered that the key to helping them be successful involved developing a personal relationship with each of them. Many children with behavior problems feel unloved by their parents and/or by their peers. They get attention any way they can and what they have discovered is that negative behavior draws attention. Even children without overt behavior problems are more likely to thrive in an environment where they are understood and celebrated.

Therefore, my simple plan to improve student achievement and behavior has two parts: 
  1. Get to know the students well and 
  2. Reinforce positive behavior wherever possible.

As a high school teacher, I usually have 120-130 students so it is difficult to know each of my students well. I have developed some techniques that help me with this goal. I usually target first the students who appear to need me the most and then I move on to other students. 

To get to know my students, I ask the following questions:

  • What are their unique learning needs?
  • What is going on with them out of school?
  • What are their interests?
  • What are their emotional needs?

And to find out this information I have many sources.

I start with a simple questionnaire on the first day of school. As well as the typical information (parent names and addresses, course schedule, etc.), I ask questions such as:

  • How many siblings do you have? Ages? Names?
  • Do you have any pets? Kinds? Names?
  • What do you want to be doing in 5 years? 10 years?
  • Do you play sports? An instrument?
  • What is your favorite music? Book? Movie?
  • What do you like to do in your spare time?

You could add many other questions!

During the first days of school, I take a few minutes at the beginning of each period to pull out the completed questionnaires and highlight various students. They really seem to enjoy this.

Then as the year progresses, I try to find out more about them. I engage students in conversation every opportunity I get - before school in the commons, at lunch in the cafeteria, after school at various events. I try to attend their plays, musical events, and sports events. This is sometimes hard but even going once is really important to them.

There are other sources of information that can prove valuable for different students.

  • Counselors and support personnel such as social workers and assistant principals. Many time these experts are willing to discuss things that they are reluctant to put on paper.
  • Other teachers
    I have found that it is very valuable to discuss a student with other teachers. Many times we can share what we know about that student and be much more helpful in class.
  • The student's family
    I have found parents, grandparents, and other family members to be very eager to share information with a well-meaning teacher. A parent can often be a rich source of information about the student you are trying to work with.
  • Observations (absences, affect, etc.) I keep my eyes, ears, and intuition open to each of my students. I watch for sad faces, sudden quiet behavior, and/or unusual hyperactivity. A child's behavior is a great clue to what they are feeling. I am very direct. If I see an unusually quiet student, I will just say, "You seem down today. Did something happen?" Invariably, the student will open up and then I just listen, learn, and try to help.
  • Newspaper
    Many small town newspapers will highlight sporting events, music performances, etc. I save all of these articles and post them in my classroom so that we can all celebrate the accomplishments of some other student.

There are many rewards for the teacher who goes to the effort to know her students well. Students come back for many years to talk and to let you know what you have meant to them. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that you have helped a child reach his or her potential and helped them through a difficult time. This is when my "soul sings!" May your time with students be full of rich satisfaction, also.

There are probably many other great ways to try and get to know students. Please share you ideas with me  via e-mail.

 

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