As a teacher mentor, one of the first things I do after meeting and greeting a new teacher is to visit a class and give the teacher comprehensive feedback on their teaching from fresh, objective eyes. I tell them all the good things I see them doing and describe their best qualities as teachers and people. Then I tell them the main areas they should work on to improve their practice. Later, I follow up with a conversation about the information, and we work from there. Many times, they have already made effective changes by the time I come back. My district is lucky to have a mentor program for its new teachers.
Unfortunately, however, many school districts do not have mentors who can work side by side with their new teachers. There is a huge learning curve in creating a productive learning environment and teaching 30 individuals, each of whom are coming from different places. I have discovered in my work, however, that if teachers just listen carefully to their students, most of the feedback they need comes directly out of their students’ mouths. Just listen:
(S = students remark, T = teacher remark)
S: “Where is my assigned seat?”
T: “I don’t have assigned seats yet.”
S: “No extra copies of that handout?”
T: ” I had some; maybe there are no more.”
S: “What’s the date?”
S: “What? Can you say that again? I couldn’t hear you.”
S: (to other students) “Shhh!”
S: ” Is that version on Netflix?”
S: “Can I use the bathroom?”
S: “Is this going to count toward our grade?” “How much?”
T: “It factors in.”
S: (to another student) “Get the F out of here!”
S: ” Mr. A, tell everybody to be quiet.”
T: “Take out those earplugs.”
S: “I can hear you.”
T: “I’ll be your partner.”
S: “You’re not my partner; you’re the teacher.”
S: “You are too easy, Ms. C”
S: “I don’t like reading.”
T: “Does anyone want to put this on the board?” No one responds.
S: “Did you put the rest of my grades in power school?”
It is also true that students make comments for other reasons– to save face or to impress their friends, for example. When students are saying things that suggest their learning needs are not being met, however, the teacher should listen and take it to heart. I’ll use some of these examples to show you what I mean.
When a student reminds the teacher that s/he was going to have a seating chart that day, and the teacher did not get around to it, that comment tells the teacher something important. That student (no matter how much s/he protests in front of his or her peers) was looking forward to a seating assignment–likely because s/he was in a seat that was inhibiting learning. That student was glad the teacher was finally going to do something about the obstacle and is probably disappointed that s/he didn’t make a seating chart.
Questions teachers hear repeatedly from their students, such as “What is the date?” or “Can I go to the bathroom?” or “Where are the tissues?” indicate that teachers have not set up procedures in their rooms that address daily needs. The correct date should be on the board in the same place every day, the teacher should have a bathroom policy so students don’t have to blurt out in the middle of instruction when they need to go, and tissues, pencil sharpeners, etc., should be available in the back of the room in the same place every day so students can access them without disruption.
Students who are shushing other students or asking the teacher to tell everyone to be quiet are clearly being disturbed by the amount of noise in the room. They are telling the teacher that s/he needs some rules (and effective consequences) about talking out of turn or having loud, unrelated side conversations in the class.
Teachers who try to be too friendly in their classrooms tend to get remarks from students about their role in the classroom, such as “You are not my partner; you’re the teacher.” This student is letting the teacher know very directly that s/he is not, in the student’s view, being the teacher but instead trying to be on the same level with the students.
When I hear several comments about grades and grading, it is evident that the teacher is overwhelmed and likely behind in grading so students are confused about where they stand in the class academically. It could also indicate that the teacher has not found a reasonable and consistent system for weighing and grading student work.
If the teacher asks questions such as “Who wants to put this on the board?” that fall flat and get no response, the teacher may want to consider re-framing his or her questions. “Juan, please put #1 on the board, Tamsie, please put #2” might be more effective. Teachers will come up with the right approach that matches their styles and subjects if they put their minds to it.
If students are cursing in a class, they are testing the teacher’s boundaries. If the teacher does nothing, it continues, and students will push the limits in other ways as well. They want to know where the boundaries are in each class.
If students admit to not liking or not being able to see or do something, then there may be a learning difference that needs to be accommodated. The teacher should speak to the student one-on-one and see what might need to be done to help that student.
If teachers want to improve their teaching practice–no matter how many years they have been teaching–they should listen carefully to the feedback their students are giving them every day. They will learn a lot. They might even record their classes now and then and then pay close attention to the side remarks made. Or teachers may ask someone to record comments for them.
Another way to get helpful feedback on how to improve as a teacher is to ask students directly through periodic surveys. However, don’t wait until the end of the quarter. Give brief warm-ups where students evaluate the class so far, or give teachers an opinion on each unit and how it went for them. What changes might help students in learning the material? Teachers will show their students that they are trying to meet their needs, and teachers will also speed up their progress on that initial learning curve that is the most difficult part of being a new teacher.