What students want - Mindsteps Inc.

What students want

As part of the work we typically do with our sustainable PD clients, we conduct student focus groups to determine whether the work we are doing with teachers is actually making a difference for students in the classroom. So, I’ve spent the last month in classrooms talking to students grades k-12. What I love about these focus groups is that the students really don’t hold back. They are brutally honest about what is working (and not working) about school, their teachers, and their principals. Here’s what they told me:

School is so boring. Most of the students with whom I met complain that their classes are too teacher directed. One group of urban high school students said that “All the teachers do is run their mouths. All you have to do is sit there. You really don’t have to do anything else.” Another group of teenagers told me that they wanted to learn but that their classes were so boring with no interactivity. In fact, boredom was the universal complaint among all the middle and high school students I met. They crave interactivity and the opportunity to, as one teen stated, “learn for ourselves.”

School is too easy. Several students complained that their school work wasn’t challenging enough. They wanted rigorous learning experiences rather than blindly complete homework and class work individually in their seats. They told me that they don’t do homework at home because they could easily complete it during first period while the teacher was talking. Others said that some class work was so easy, they rushed through it so that they could just take a break, sit and do nothing for a bit. They raved about teachers who pushed them to go beyond the surface understanding of the subject, posed interesting dilemmas, and taught them how to solve interesting problems. Students wanted to be challenged, to engage in rigorous learning that “actually makes you think.”

School is too hard. Other students worried that school was too hard for them. They wanted to learn but felt that “the teachers talk over our heads” or that they weren’t getting the supports they needed to be successful. They knew that they didn’t understand certain concepts but shrugged and said that the teacher just moved on anyway. They wanted their teachers to take time to help them understand course content, provide additional support in class rather than during lunch, recess, and after school, and explain things using “plain English.”

School rules are stupid. Across all grade levels (k-12) students complained about school rules. This wasn’t the normal teen-aged rebellion against order here. Students complained about silent lunches and the inability to use cell phones or gaming consoles during lunch, recess, and other periods designated “their own time.” They complained that they didn’t get enough time during the school day to interact with their friends and that their lunch and recess time was so controlled that neither were very much fun for them.

We want relationships with our teachers. The students praised some of their teachers for taking time to get to know who they were and care about them on a personal level. Those teachers were universally their favorites. In fact, in one school where the majority of the students skipped at least one class per day, the students told me that they never skip the classes of the teachers who care about them and seek out relationships with them. The elementary students I met with even wanted a personal relationship with their principal. They wanted a principal who knows them by name, cares about who they are, visits their classrooms and talks with them in the halls. Overwhelmingly, the students expressed a need for adults who knew and understood them and showed that they cared about who they were. They worked hard for the teachers that did and ignored or outright rebelled against the teachers who didn’t.

We don’t always do our part either. Students were honest in admitting that there was more that they should be doing as well. They admitted to skipping classes, not doing their homework, sleeping during class, and breaking class and school rules. Elementary students wanted teachers and principals who enforced the rules and held them and other students accountable for misbehaving. It was really important that school be a safe and orderly place to learn. Middle and high school students were equally effusive about teachers and administrators who “didn’t let them get away with no stuff.” They wanted to be held accountable. As one student put it, “the teachers who care about you don’t let you get away with anything and that’s all right. It means that they care about you and want you to be something.” As much as they craved being held accountable, they hated discipline in the traditional sense. They didn’t want to be simply punished for breaking the rules and they complained that some teachers and administrators didn’t know how to let things go. One elementary student said that she understood that teachers have to enforce the rules but that “they don’t have to be mean about it.” Again, that relationship is so important. Students want to be held accountable, but they also want to be forgiven and they want to know that their teachers believe in them even when they misbehave.

Do these student voices resonate with you? What do you think about what they have to say? Leave your comments below.

  • My Web Site Design class is just fininshing an assignment titled “My Favorite Class.” I focused on subject matter. The students all focused on the personality of the teacher. In every case the students chose teachers whole showed they cared about the students.

    Many schools, especially high schools, tell teachers their job is to teach the subject, not to befriend the students. But how can one teach a subject effectively if the students don’t believe the teacher cares about them as individuals? 

  • Patti Williams says:

    The students comments reminded me of a passage from David Brooks’ new book The Social Animal.  In it he describes his fictional character Harold’s high school.
    “The students would burn out if forced to spend their entire day amidst the social intensity of the cafeteria and the hallway.  Fortunately, the school authorities also schedule
    dormant periods, called classes, during which students can rest their minds and take a break from the pressures of social categorization.  Students correctly understand, though
    adults appear not to, that socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing they will do in high school.”

  • Traci Townsend says:

    This was an insightful and helpful article.  It just reaffirms my belief that teaching is one of the hardest jobs on earth.  We work directly with students everyday who are unique and require very different things.  Although I am now an administrator, I am an educator and will always consider myself a teacher because my job will always be to teach students and ensure they get what they need to learn, and enjoy it in the process.  Thanks for reminding us of all the things we shold consider while doing this!

  • dkzody says:

    My students always said much the same things. I would have them write a journal entry, the second day of school, about their first day of school, and they always complained about teachers talking too much. I quit doing all the rules and stuff on the first day and waited until later, when I had gotten to know the students better. Same thing with all the paperwork that is required those first few days. I would wait as long as possible to hand it out because I knew parents were inundated with all those syllabus and class rules, reams and reams of paper. What a waste of time, effort, and resources.
    Because I was project based, my students rarely complained about boredom in my class, but I sure heard about it in their other classes. They would complain bitterly to me as to why couldn’t I get other teachers to do let them do work like I did. Oh, if you only knew, child!.  I was seen as something of a heretic. There were few lectures in my classes, the students all used computers, they could listen to their iPods, I allowed them to use their cell phones if they asked ahead of time. My students produced real-life work, many times for real-life companies. The students left my program able to do more than most high school graduates. And, I still hear from them, often complaining about their boring college classes!

    • Jill Loveridge says:

      what topic did you teach?  that makes a difference. 

      I’d be hard pressed to teach math project based.

  • Hi Robyn,
    This absolutely reasonates with me.  I am a teacher, but I am also the mother of 3 boys, who have these exact same complaints.  It is

    • Hi Robyn,
      This absolutely reasonates with me.  I am a teacher, but I am also the mother of 3 boys, who have these exact same complaints.  It is
      I loved school as a child, and it is so frustrating to see my own kids so uninspired.  Thanks for publishing this.  Now I know my kids are not alone!
      Jolynn Tarwater, NBCT

  • Clarice Bridgewater says:

    I believe the interviews with the students reflected quite a balanced and honest response to students’ views about their school experience.  Consequently, It seems vital that  both parties in this dynamic ‘teaching learning’ experience hear each other. However, beyond hearing there needs to be a flexibility on the part of teacher and students alike. Failure in any one part of this equation and we all know what occurs. 

  • kylie says:

    I agreed with every sentiment in this article! I teach at a University Prep School, and I think that my students would agree with most of these statements. I sat down with a student and talked about some of these things last night, and it was interesting to hear his perspective. He knows that there are problems. Part of the difficulty for me is that it is a second language institution, so it is hard to communicate the deep thoughts and reasonings behind education. But, I think that most of my students would agree with all of these.
    One problem that I think we are facing in our schools is that it is really difficult for just one teacher to come in and make a difference. I do really try to spend time getting to know my students, and I have students that will come and talk to me on their own time and talk to me about what is going on. But, I feel that if there is only one or two teachers who are going to take the time, it is going to be really rough. Students get in a rut of sleeping in class, or not doing homework, and it is hard for them to transition to being good students in a good teachers’ class. It needs to be a goal of the teachers together and the school as a whole to provide what the students need most. As much time and effort as one teacher puts into helping the students succeed and enjoy school, they really need a network that they can rely on to stand behind them and support their efforts.
    Thanks for this article, it was very interesting!

  • […] Mindstep’s What Students Want: This was an extremely interesting post about some student interviews, and what students themselves […]

  •  This Article Is So True  I A gree with them l..

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