In our upcoming book Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education, my co-author tells about his cousin, Maia Stephens, who is a second grade teacher in a school in Northwest Detroit. It is a Title I school in a high poverty area and 95% black. Maia has been successfully teaching there for 18 years. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, active in her Professional Learning Community with other educators, and the Social Studies Lead Teacher at her school. She is respected by her colleagues and beloved by her students and their parents. She seems to be able to embed a positive mindset into her students. We wanted to know how she did that.
She told us,
“When my students from earlier in my career come back to visit me at school very few of them will mention the innovative lessons that I taught. They rarely mention how creative they were. They mention the love that I showed them, and the words of motivation I gave them.”
This reminded Simon of the timeless classic quote from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Then we asked Maia what has been the greatest lesson she has learned in her 18 years as an educator.
She told us,
“Human relationships are vital to academic pursuits. I have taught kids who have come from poverty stricken areas for my entire career. Their concerns were not necessarily my academic agenda for the day. Their concerns were about food, clothing, and shelter. Will I have food for dinner? Will I get a winter coat? I learned that once the students and the parents knew that I had a genuine concern for them and I did not think I was better than them, they were able to listen to my strategies and engage with me to attain academic success.”
After interviewing Maia, we began to understand how important teacher-student relationships were to learning outcomes. Listening to Maia, it seemed that students will rise to the level of academic achievement that teachers expect of them. Poverty is a circumstance, not an excuse. Most children living in poverty are capable and whole—if we see them that way. Maia saw more for the students than they often saw for themselves. She helped them rise toward their higher potential instead of staying stuck in victim-thinking.
Don’t we educators all want to be like Maia—connecting with kids and making a difference in their lives? After all, that’s why most of us chose education as our life’s work in the first place.
But sometimes it’s not easy. Some kids know what our hot buttons are and love to push them. Some are delightful but so active and fidgety that they get on our nerves and wear us out trying to refocus them. And some seem to have no interest in engaging in the work—just the social life of school.
Students with low motivation and low skill need Direction and encouragement to build their confidence and interest in the work. It starts with getting to know them on a personal level and assuming they want to be cooperative with you. Then, develop ways for students to have quick wins in the learning content and see that even if the learning is hard for them, they have something to contribute to the class. It helps students understand that if they have a question or are confused about something in the content, it’s likely someone else in the class feels the same. That other person just wasn’t brave enough to ask it!
On the other hand, students who have low engagement (making little effort in the learning tasks) but high skill (good background for the topic) will require teachers not only get to know them personally but also to inspire and Excite them. Talk to these students about why things learned in this class make a difference for them. Ask them what about the topic or task most interests them and then encourage them to demonstrate their knowledge and skill in that individual way. Acknowledge any positive movement in effort that you notice on the students’ part. Give them opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise with other classmates. Encourage them to make special contributions to the learning.
Students with low skill but high will (they like learning new things) need lots of feedback and Guidance to take smart risks to develop their confidence. Like their classmates who need Direction, they need easy wins and coaching about what they are doing well and how they are progressing. For this group of students teachers should be careful about making judgments too soon and instead focus on effort and the progress the students are making. Praise students for how far they have come in their understanding and be clear about what their next learning steps should be.
Most often our all-time favorite students are the ones with high will and high skill. These are the students who have the power to shape the culture of the classroom. Delegate leadership opportunities to them. Treat them as class leaders. Encourage their input and allow them to share their experiences to help classmates. Give them voice. Ask for their ideas and suggestions for learning tasks and meaningful projects. Show that you trust them to help you make the class interesting and meaningful for their classmates.
Intuitively, many teachers respond in these ways with the majority of students they teach. But having this analytical understanding of what works, helps teachers connect with those students with whom they find difficult to reach.
Bailey, Simon T., and Reilly, Marceta F. Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education. Corwin Press: in production.