Students Want Adults Who Care

Blaine AlexanderBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better, Lead Better

TL;DR:

  • Students don’t want adults who dispense information. They want adults who care.
  • Create thought-provoking learning experiences for students and avoid lecture-style teaching.
  • Make learning relevant for students by connecting what they are learning to the real-world.
  • If building relationships with students is difficult for you, start by talking to students about their lives.

I sat speechless in a grade-level team meeting expecting John Quinones, host of the television show, What Would You Do, to come around the corner and make his appearance at any time.  Surely, I was either on his show or I was being “punked.”  Waiting patiently for the punchline, I soon realized that this was no joke.

Just minutes before, an educator—a person who has chosen the profession to positively change the lives of young people—looked at me and exclaimed, “I don’t get paid to like my students; I get paid to teach.”  The same educator later asked me, “At what point can I just give up on a student?”  These statements still hurt me today just as they did five years ago.  I will circle back to this topic later in the blog.

Students are open, honest, and transparent about their educational needs.

With my work with the Arkansas Leadership Academy, I have the privilege of working with focus groups comprised of various stakeholders in the educational world.  I relish each of these opportunities, but leading focus groups of students is a highlight of my work in leadership development.  Our conversations focus on means in which students can have a voice in the school improvement process.

If building relationships with students is difficult for you, just start by talking to students about their lives. They want and need educators who care. I promise you it will be worth it. Click To Tweet

Over the last several years, I have interviewed thousands of students from middle school to college and adult education.  One of the questions I ask each student focus group is, “What can we adults do to help you be a successful learner and support your learning process?”

With so much data, it is easy to pull out the trends in the responses.  Using the “top ten” model from David Letterman, I want to share with you what students have told me over the past fifteen years of interviewing, beginning with the third most mentioned request.  Number three….

“Please do not lecture at us.”

A misunderstanding among some educators is that students like lectures because they don’t have to participate in the learning, but my data from student focus groups tells me that students want to be engaged in the learning process.  Students want the learning process to be “fun” (their word), but the message they are sending is that they want engaging, thought-provoking learning experiences.

Research tells us that lecturing is not an effective teaching strategy, so why is this strategy still so commonplace?   Lecturing does not take as much planning time as prepping for engaging learning experiences, but our students are worth the time.  Number two….

“Please connect the learning to real-world experiences.”

Whether we are a student learner or an adult learner, relevance is a piece of the learning theory.  Relevance gives students a purpose.  Effective educators are exemplary in making the learning relevant, and when students can connect the learning to real-world experiences, sustainable learning takes place.

Now, by far, the number one response to the above question—whether the responder is a middle school student or a college student—is…

“I will work harder and do much better for a teacher that I know cares about me as a person.”

When I say, “by far,” I am not sure I remember a time when this response was not given.  Do you want students to be successful?  Just start by showing them that you care for them as a person and not a test score.  It is not rocket science.  If students told me that their number one need from adults is the “knowledge of advanced chemistry,” I would be in big trouble.  But the number one need is “caring.”  We all can do that.  Or can we?

Can “caring for students” be taught and learned, or do we either have the skill or we don’t?

Do any schools provide professional development on “caring”?  If showing students we care for them as people is the number one need from our students, then we should place an emphasis on creating caring and supportive learning cultures in our schools.  Maybe we can restructure those “classroom management” workshops where the focus moves from reactive punitive measures to proactive strategies like building strong relationships with students.

In-school suspension does not fix life problems.  Students need a caring adult.

Some comments from students about the importance of adults building strong, caring relationships with students that continue to resonate with me years after the interview:

  • “If my teachers actually knew what my life looked like between 3:00 pm and 8:00 the next morning, I think they would understand why I struggle in school.”
  • “If you need to correct me about a school issue, take the time to ask my name or get to know me, too. I am a human being.”
  • “I was sent to ISS (in-school suspension) for one week because I was wearing the wrong color uniform shirt. If the principal really took the time to get to know me, he would realize that I slept on a park bench and didn’t have a change of clothes” (I told him that I admired him for making sure he made it to school).
  • “I am a junior in high school, and you are the first adult to ever ask me about my life outside of school – and you don’t even work here.”
  • “My baby was in the ER all night with a high temperature. I texted my teacher and told her that I may have to miss school.  She said that I would get a zero if I was not there to take my test.”
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Most educators understand “why” positive relationships are important, but sometimes don’t understand the “how.”

Am I the only one who cringes when I hear these stories?  Are these behaviors the norm?  I am going to say no. But we all need a reminder that we are working with human beings who have struggles that affect their educational journey.

If building relationships with students is difficult for you, just start by talking to students about their lives.  They want and need educators and adults who care.  I promise you it will be worth it.


About Blaine Alexander

Dr. Alexander is currently serving his eleventh year as a Leadership Performance Coach with the Arkansas Leadership Academy through the University of Arkansas. Prior to his current experience in leadership development, Dr. Alexander served as a school administrator for 17 years. His research focuses on developing collaborative cultures founded on trust and respect and immersed in student and adult learning. Dr. Alexander’s dissertation explores the factors necessary for student voice to be institutionalized and taken to scale in a school district. Each year, he facilitates learning for students and teachers in the Arkansas Leadership Academy’s Student Voice Institute.

Education:
B.A. Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas
M.Ed. Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas
Ed.D. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Dissertation: Student Voice Initiative: Exploring Implementation Strategies