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High-School Students Speak: What They Want Us to Know

Meghan Mathis

High-School Students Speak:  What They Want us to KnowHonest answers to an honest question

I recently found myself thinking about all of the things I would like my high-school students to know but don’t.  I wrote an article about it, and as I was putting it together it occurred to me that I would love to find out what my students want me to know.  I start each of my classes with a “bell-ringer” question they have to answer as soon as they arrive to class.  Usually the questions relate to whatever unit we are currently learning about but I like to throw in random questions once or twice a week as a way to learn a little bit more about each of my students.  So I asked them, “What is one thing you would like to tell your teachers about teenagers that you think they don’t know, but should?” 

Being honest, the first time I read their responses I was…underwhelmed.  I was hoping to gain some real insight and instead I felt like I was reading 20 different versions of, “You give us too much homework.”  I was ready to chuck the responses in the garbage and move on when it occurred to me that maybe I should look again, see if there was anything more I could glean from the responses.  Teen-agers are masters of telling you things without saying anything.  Teachers have to become experts of knowing when a student doesn’t understand even though she swears she does, knowing when students are causing mischief while wearing innocent expressions, and when a student needs help even though they’re telling you their fine.  With that in mind, I thought, were these responses giving me insights that I just wasn’t seeing?  I looked again and sure enough, I started to see some patterns emerge, and in those patterns, I believe…were the insights I was hoping for all along.

We’re too busy for all this homework…

Two of the most common responses I received from my classes were that they received too much homework and that they were too busy outside of school to complete it all.  While I admit I rolled my eyes at this, it came up so often it was hard to ignore as just students being lazy.  What I took from this was that students are not seeing the value of the work we give them outside of class.  While this isn’t exactly an earth-shattering revelation – how many students ever like homework? – it did remind me that, as educators, we need to make sure that the assignments we give our students outside of class are  relevant and necessary.  If they are large assignments, we need to chunk them into manageable doses not just for a student who goes home each night and plays video games, but also for the students who go from school to sports, drama, music, or work and don’t get home until much later in the evening.  Finally, I realized that we probably should be working harder to convey to our students why we are assigning the work we give them.  Letting students know the reason why we are giving them an assignment might not cut down on the whining…but it would help them know that we aren’t just wasting their time.

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Don’t waste our time…

While so many of us work diligently every day to ensure our lessons are engaging and meaningful, our students know that sometimes our lessons aren’t the greatest.  More of my students complained about teachers giving them busy work than teachers being boring.  In a way, we should be thrilled about this.  Our students don’t want to feel like we are not giving 100% to our lessons.  They are more willing to be forgiving of a lesson that was boring, but that we put time into then a lesson that is obviously pointless.  As a teacher, I know that there are times when I just need my students to copy the notes off the board, but after reading my students’ comments I realized that I want to continue to make sure that I break up those moments with learning experiences that don’t feel like busy work.

Make it interesting if you want us to listen…

While I just finished stating that more students complained about busy work than complained about boring work that doesn’t mean I didn’t get plenty of responses about boredom.  Several students made sure to let me know that they expected to be entertained if I expected them to learn.  I don’t think any teacher is surprised by this, but it made me reflect on just how challenging our job truly is.  In our society, we’re so willing to forgive a doctor who is brusque if they do their job well.  If a server isn’t super friendly but still brings our food quickly and keeps our drinks refilled we still tip well.  In our profession, however, not only do we need to know our subject matter, understand state standards, manage classroom behavior, deal with the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of 25+ unique individuals, we also have to do all of that while teaching them in an engaging, entertaining way!  Whew, I’m exhausted just typing it!

We’re not perfect…

This was the response that really made me wonder if what I thought were mundane complaints were actually insights in disguise.  My initial reaction was something along the lines of, Oh good grief!  No one expects you to be perfect!  Soon after that reaction, however, I had to grade a paper one of my students had turned in one day late.  My school’s policy on late work is that it can be turned in one day late for half credit, and after that, no credit.  I gave my student a 50% for their work and started to think.  How many times have I told students that I would have their papers graded by a certain day and then told them, “I couldn’t finish them all, I’ll bring them tomorrow.”? I don’t have a classroom of my own, I have to share classrooms with other teachers.  How many times have I forgotten something in another classroom and had to send a student for it?  Not every week, but certainly enough to know that if I was docked 50% of what I earned that day for forgetting my materials I would be very unhappy.  No one would even consider doing that however, because we understand that no one is perfect.  It was humbling to realize that, in many instances, we do hold our students to a higher standard than we are held to in our adult lives.  While I am a huge proponent of high standards for my students, it has made me reconsider some of my policies to include a bit more wiggle room for honest mistakes and occasional forgetfulness.

You don’t see how hard we try…

This one also was an eye-opener from me.  Numerous students stated that if they could share anything with their teachers it would be that they are working really hard and that even though it wasn’t always reflected in their grade they wished we knew how much time they were putting into it.  I think sometimes we see a lower grade and assume that it’s because a student didn’t put in enough effort.  While this may often be the case, these responses have helped me remember to also consider the possibility that a student tried their hardest and still might need a bit more assistance to fully grasp the concept. 

Our friends are way more important than you…

I knew this already but it definitely is worth sharing.  My students were very honest about the fact that it really didn’t matter how fantastic our classes were…their lives outside of class were their first priority.  Adults always wish they could impress upon young people how their friends might change but their education will stay with them for the rest of their lives, but the indisputable reality is that at this stage of their lives, friends are more important.  Rather than being upset by this, I took away from these responses that teachers of teen-agers need to remember not to become overly upset when our students’ don’t give us their full attention and to realize that one of the challenges (and joys!) of teaching this age-group is coming up with lessons engaging enough to pull them away from the concerns outside of the classroom and into learning something new. 

Sometimes our problems are bigger than ‘just typical drama…’

I end with this one because it’s something that is becoming increasingly common in our classrooms.  Several students wished their teachers knew that sometimes what we see as “teenage drama” is bigger – sometimes its depression, generalized anxiety disorder, eating disorders, anger issues, pregnancy scares, concerns about sex, and other serious issues.  Our students want us to know that sometimes they aren’t paying attention, sometimes they are withdrawn, or angry, or sad and that sometimes…it really is a big deal.  My students wanted us to know that they are dealing with serious issues and that they really need us to treat those concerns seriously as well.

I know now that as I read over my students’ responses the first time I had done exactly what they asked me not to do.  I had not taken them seriously.  I had assumed the worst, rather than looking for the best.  I did not look for what they were really saying as I focused on what I thought they were telling me.  I’m so happy I took a second look because while I originally thought my students hadn’t shared anything meaningful – I see now that they did exactly what I asked them to do.