Getting To Know Students Starts With Asking The Right Questions
by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Teacher/Marketer/Spin Doctor Extraordinaire
It’s back to school time!
Whether you’ve been teaching for two minutes or twenty years, this is a critical time of year. You meet your students. They stare you down. Not averages stares–the types of stares kids go home and practice after watching too many cartoons where the eyes really can hypnotize adults or defeat them with laser beams shooting from the retinas. Sometimes, I think I see a rotten tomato fly through the air.
When kids enter my classroom, they’re thinking, “Is this woman going to bore me to death? Can I put up with her?” I hope the answer is a resounding “Yes, you will have fun.” Here’s the thing, though. If you’re a teacher in a normal, run of the mill American public school, you’ve probably been handed a curriculum or a set of things to teach in a set way packaged just so.
You wonder how you can make a fun–and meaningful–year out of… this. You’re reflecting, thinking about the big questions relating to your classroom this year. “What do they need to learn, will they succeed, will they pass the test?” You may even be thinking, “Will I be teach well enough to be respected, get results, and keep my job?”
You are asking the wrong questions.
If you’re asking questions about curriculum, you’re asking questions that relate to long-term course goals or end of year goals. No student cares.
If you’re asking about your ratings, you’re asking questions out of fear. Fear makes it nearly impossible to accomplish great things.
If you’re asking questions about testing and scores, your questions have to do with things imposed upon you by districts and states. This is nothing you can control, so don’t let it crush you and ruin the way you teach.
This year, try something different. Take a step back and ask the right question, “What is my job?” Every year, I start my class with a questionnaire that is essentially a marketing survey.
“Marketing survey?” you ask. Marketing survey. In order to get to know my students, I have to ask the right questions.
My students are my customers. I want to know what they think, what they like, how they learn. I want to know what they think about the education process. What resources do they feel they need to be successful in their future?
These are questions that matter. What school says students need and what students value too often diverge, like one team showing up for a game at Yankee Stadium while the other’s waiting at Fenway Park. Regardless of who’s right, if the visions don’t intersect, students won’t be invested in their education. Teachers will continue to provide lessons (or worse–impose mandates) that won’t get students where they need to be in their futures–happy and successful.
That’s largely where many schools are today. Asking students what they feel they need gets them engaged in the process of envisioning their futures. I don’t tell them, but 99% of them are wrong–not wrong about how they feel, but wrong about the path their future will take.
I was them a couple of decades ago. It’s my mission to help them avoid the beatings I took along the path. How? Merge their ideas about success with ideas and endless possibilities.
“Have you ever considered…” is the key to get students thinking about their power. It opens up worlds they never imagined. I watch their ideas morph and change. A kid with tech skills and a passion for science doesn’t have to be a doctor. She can be an engineer in a biotech startup. A student who’s a great communicator can be a public speaker or corporate trainer. These are paths they don’t even know exist.
Often schools ask one question. What do you want to do for a career? This question, standing alone, is not the right question. Instead, try:
11 Simple, Back-to-School, Getting To Know Students Questions
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What classes do you love and hate most in school? Why?
- Describe your favorite teacher. What types of things did you do in that class?
- How do you organize your room? Locker? Backpack?
- If school could be about any one thing, and it would be my job to design all the subjects around that one thing, what would you want it to be and why?
- Do you get good grades in school? Do you think you could do better? Explain.
- If you had a choice to come to school, would you come? Why or why not?
- What sports or activities have you participated in in the past? What do you plan to join in this school?
- What are your greatest talents? If I needed your help to do something, what would it be?
- Do you like group work or individual work?
- What languages does your family speak at home?
You’ll find out the interests, values, and experiences of each student. You’ll find out how to turn a “I hate school” kid into the “that class was awesome!” testimonial. My job isn’t to please every customer all the time–it’s to find out what they need then educate them as to why they need it. If I’ve done my job, they’ll return and tell me I was right.
“Miss,” one said, “I know I hated public speaking, but I gave a talk to a foundation and made forty thousand dollars for my charity!” That’s a big win.
My job isn’t really teaching. It’s marketing. Communications. Politics. Relationship building. I sell the reason I’m teaching a skill. I communicate it effectively. I “edutain.” I get around the roadblocks in the system to do what’s right for my students. To do all that, I have to ask the right questions.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by the wrong questions–asking things that address the day-to-day problems, the small picture.
“Did you finish that assignment?” “What’s the value of X?”
If I always come back to the big question “What is my job?” then I ask students “what do you feel” questions. I refocus my teaching on the things that matter to each individual student, and sell them on learning things that truly matter. In this way, I hope I can convince students to become invested in their own future, so they can begin asking the right questions themselves.