I believe that a basic minimum requirement for educators should be that they want to raise the achievements of all students, and work in environments that are comfortable and welcoming for them and their students.
Getting to know, trying to understand, and building relationships with students we teach are probably the most important first steps in teaching. Research has shown that a key component of raising achievement in schools is to develop a more welcoming attitude toward parents and to develop greater connections with the wider community.
We need to know about our students’ lives in order to reach and teach them. At the risk of stating the blindly obvious a first step must be our students’ names. In this global village in which many of us are increasingly finding ourselves, names may be linguistically challenging, but we need to learn to say them properly.
Names are an integral part of a person’s identity. You know how irritating it can be when someone gets your name wrong, especially if you have seen this person on multiple occasions. Imagine being in a classroom for a year and having this happen on a regular basis.
A strategy that I have used for all ages is getting students to tell me something about their name that nobody else knows. You may find that your students were named after Marvel comic heroes, family members, storybook heroines and heroes and even a nice checkout lady at a supermarket. Realizing the importance of a name is a simple step to getting to know your students.
Just looking at our students and lumping them all together as one but don’t assume as to how your students self-identify. We are all guilty of reverting to unconscious bias and stereotyping. Our brains have a natural tendency to want to group, categorized and assign neat labels.
If every time we saw a ‘chair’ we had to work out what it was, we might take a lifetime thinking about what a chair was, but our brains have developed a system that categorizes what is thinks is a chair and so we have little difficulty in recognizing an armchair, highchair, wheelchair. All different but we group them as chairs. Unfortunately, we also use this system to stereotype people and assign them into neat and often historically damaging boxes.
One way of exploring identities is to use children stories such as “The Bear that Wasn’t” or by Frank Tashlin or “The Sneetches” by Dr Seuss. Have or helping pupils draw identity charts about themselves noting down things they think are important about themselves and sharing it among themselves is a fun useful way of finding out a lot about the students we teach.
Another rich source for finding out about your students is their parents/guardians older or younger siblings, ask them to tell you 5-10 great things about the student, most will be thrilled that you are interested. It may be well as much or as little as they or their parents/guardians/siblings choose to disclose.
Some will be forthcoming others will think it is none of your business, but you can then use that knowledge to better inform your teaching practices. The students that we teach want to fit in, but they also want to be individuals. If we look for the individual not the stereotype in our students, our classrooms may perhaps become places were learning and instruction is more than a one-way street.