What does it feel like to be a student in your classroom? Have you ever asked yourself that question? We spend a lot of time getting the classroom prepared at the beginning of the year. We start the year putting structures and systems in place that will hopefully help our students achieve the results we’ve been mandated to produce. We work hard at getting to know our students, the curriculum, and the standards. All these things are important.
But, one thing we often miss is seeing our classroom from our students’ perspective. We’re very clear about what our classrooms look like from our perspective. We even consider what it will look like from the perspective of whomever is observing us. Rarely do we consider what it feels like to be a student in our very own classrooms.
If you are an administrator or instructional coach, this is also a critical question to consider as you observe instruction. It’s not just what the teacher is doing; it’s the effect on the students that counts too.
Sometimes I can be hard to remember what it’s like to be a student. So, here are several steps you can take to see your school from your students’ perspective
- Sit in your students’ desks. Literally. Choose 3 or 4 random desks in your classroom and sit in them. Can you see the board? Can you see your desk? Are the desks comfortable? Is there enough light? Space between that desk and other desks?
- Try to do your homework assignments yourself. How long did it take you? Were the directions clear? Did the homework help you do the kind of thinking you were hoping it would produce in your students? What supplies did you need? Did you have them at home?
- Test-drive a project. Try to do a project yourself before assigning it to students. At each stage of the process, think about what you needed to know or be able to do in order to get through that stage. What kind of feedback would be helpful to you? Are the directions clear enough? What supplies will you need? What other supports do you need to put into place in order to complete the project?
- For each new unit, try to anticipate confusion. What concepts will be confusing or difficult? What background knowledge will your students need? Then, pre-plan the supports you will need to untangle their confusion when you teach the lesson.
- Rewrite your standards from the point of view of your students. Don’t just slap an “I” statement on the front of a standard. Actually rewrite it in terms of what students will accomplish as a result of the learning in which they are engaged.
- Watch a struggling student work. That’s right, sit next to a student as he or she works and watch. How does the student start? Where does the student get stuck? What strategies does the student use? Which ones are unsuccessful and why don’t they work? You’ll have better insight as to how to help struggling students by first understanding why they are struggling.
- Interview a successful student about an assignment. What strategies does the student use to complete the assignment? What other resources or supports does the student use? This will give you great insight on what it takes to actually be successful in your class and will tell you what gaps in support may exist and what other supports students may be inventing on their own in order to be successful with the assignment. This will give you great ideas about what it takes to be successful in your classroom and what additional supports you need to include for all students.
- Ask your students what it is like to be a student in your classroom. Do a survey or have a “town meeting” or conduct a focus group to get your students’ perspective on what works, what isn’t working well, and what they suggest you do about it. Also ask your students what they perceive as the unwritten rules of engagement in your classroom. This will tell you a lot about whether you are unintentionally sending the wrong message to your students about what is valuable.
- Visit your students’ homes or neighborhoods.
- Pick a random student in your school and follow his or her schedule for the entire day.
- Eat in the cafeteria with students. Go through the line and resist the temptation to cut to the front. How long did it take you to get through the line and what was the experience like? Sit at the table with other students and talk to them as you eat. Are the benches comfortable? Does the noise level in the room bother you? Is the food tasty?
- Conduct focus groups with students once per month.
- Talk to parents. Ask them what their students are saying about school at home.
- Do a neighborhood visit. One day after school or even on a weekend, go to one of your feeder neighborhoods and walk around. Some administrators we know actually go and set up a grill and start grilling food in a cul-de-sac or on a block. They play games with the students and invite the students and their families to hang out. Even if you didn’t want to do something that elaborate, just by walking the streets and stopping and chatting with people, you get a glimpse of your students’ lives outside of school that will inform your opinion of their behavior in school.