All About ‘The Who’: Truly Knowing Your Students Can Change Their Lives

We spend a lot of time as educators worrying about “the what,” “the why,” “the when,” “the where,” and “the how.”  What am I teaching? What units do I need to cover? What standards should I be teaching to? Why are we teaching this?  Why do we use this textbook? When am I going to fit all this in? When will I get these papers marked? Where is my classroom going to be next year?  Where should my students sit? How do I teach this lesson? How am I going to survive?!?

We’re so caught up in all of these other areas that we tend to forget about the most important piece…”the who.”  Who are our students? Who needs help today? Who has been successful on this task? Who looks like they didn’t sleep well last night?  Who has identified their strengths? Who is having a bad day today? Who…who…who?

The most important thing we can do as educators is build relationships and establish trust with our students.  Knowing them is more important to their success than anything else. More important than the book you use, the lessons you teach, the homework the complete…everything.  You must know your students!! I don’t just mean know their names or favorite color, but really know them as people. Who are they?

With that in mind, I wanted to continue sharing some great resources with you. These four articles, similar to the last few weeks, are things I’ve come across and saved as valuable tools and resources.  Have a look…the last one, in particular, will be helpful in making progress toward getting to know your students better!

The Benefits of Helping Teens Identify Their Purpose in Life

Important quote from this article:  

“In the past we had more of a script for who to be and how to be. The lack of script is a very good thing but it also makes it very hard if students don’t have support,” Senehi says. “This is part of the depression problem [among teens]. If you don’t have a script or you don’t have a place to define it for yourself, you are like a ship without an anchor.”

Why Late Nights Lead to Crankier, More Emotional Teens

Important quote from this article:  

“Getting these kids enough sleep and appropriately timed sleep is necessary for optimal self-regulation,” she says. “If you don’t have enough and appropriately timed sleep, then you’re going to compromise your ability to have these kinds of skills.”

Sometimes Misbehavior Is Not What it Seems

Important quote from this article:

“Sometimes the reason for misbehavior is very different than the obvious and requires a totally different intervention than the usual consequences. It is never easy to determine why children do the things they do.”

These teens saw how poor mental health hurt their peers. So they got a law passed.

Important quote from this article:  

“The problem is that students are doing too much, and they don’t have individuals in place that can help them deal with the stress and anxiety that come with that. A bad day turns into a bad week and turns into a bad month.”

A 4-Part System for Getting to Know Your Students

Important quote from this article:

“Building solid relationships with your students is arguably the most important thing you can do to be an effective teacher. It helps you build trust so students take academic risks, allows you to better differentiate for individual needs, and prevents the kinds of power struggles often found in poorly managed classrooms.”



They Don’t Care How Much You Know

Amy has a saying she learned from her mother long ago that I just love, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Putting in the effort to learn your students names is a good starting point but after a couple weeks the assumption would be that you’ve achieved (or you’re at least close to achieving) that goal.  Take a minute then, to think back to your days as a student, who was your favorite teacher?  Who was the best teacher in the school?  Now ask yourself ‘why?’

I’m willing to bet that your favorite teacher and/or the teacher you remember as the “best teacher” earned that place in your mind, not because they knew the content better than anyone else, but because they were a teacher who you knew cared about you as a person.  Very often the teachers who are the most effective at helping their students learn are those who show their students that they are valued and important as people, both in and out of the classroom.  

Show your students you care and they’ll work harder for you.  This seems obvious, right?  Yet, how much time and effort do you spend establishing that relationship with your students versus teaching them content material?  Now, granted, you don’t have loads of time laying around to just chat with your students but without finding a way to show them how much you care, they’ll never care how much you know.  

A few ways that I’ve found to be helpful for showing students you care:

  1. Relate to them:  Wow, this gets harder and harder each year.  I met a student this week named “Tiffany” and I started singing, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something.  Now, I know that not everyone knows that song and maybe not everyone knows the movie either.  However, it was a reminder that this is the Bieber Generation…and they’re not far from being too young for him as well.  Each year we come back to work as teachers we’re a year older but the kids are still the same age.  It takes more and more effort to relate to our students each year.  Talk to them, listen to them, and learn from them.
  2. Learn about their life outside of school:  A big word of caution here, don’t take this to mean you should be prying into personal matters.  Mostly what I’m talking about here is stuff like: what they did on the weekend, where they traveled over the summer, and what they’re listening to on their headphones.  As you build a relationship with students they may share more personal information with you, if you’re ever unsure whether something is too personal, talk to your counselors or principals.  
  3. Be real:  On Friday a high school girl asked me, “why would anyone get married?”  She, obviously, knew that I was recently married and was truly curious about the tenant of marriage and what the attractions were for so many people.  It might be a little deeper question than the average teenager would ask but I felt like if she had the courage to ask me that question, then she certainly deserved an honest answer.  Students can tell when you’re selling them a bunch of fluff, so as long as the truth doesn’t cross any ethical barriers you should be open with them.  Again, a qualifier – just because you’re being honest doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything about yourself.  Authentic is one thing, unfiltered is another.  
  4. Create opportunities:  As I continue to learn 650 names and try to show students that I care beyond just their names, I’ve got to find time.  Before/after school, break, and lunch are all prime times to talk to kids outside of the classroom.  I try not to stay too long, moving from group to group, learning bits and pieces as I go.  If you’re on duty (or even if you’re not) this is a great chance to talk to some students outside of the usual classroom context.  Also, take advantage of the few minutes of transition time to briefly check-in with one or two of the students who arrive early to your class, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn in just 30 seconds.  
  5. Get involved:  As an educator many of the strongest bonds I’ve created with students have come as the result of coaching sports.  Whether coaching, leading an After-School Activity, or simply going to watch a game or activity, there is possibly no better way to show your students that you care than getting involved.  

There are lots of ways to show our students that we care.  Over the years, as educators we’ve all learned tips and tricks to connect with our students and engage them as learners.  Whatever works best for you is what you should use.  The strategies I’ve discussed above are things that work for me and, if you haven’t tried them, might be useful tools for you as well.  Please take the time over the next few weeks to really start building those relationships with your students, the time and effort now will pay off all year long.

It’s already the beginning of week three and I couldn’t be more excited for a Monday!!  We’ve got a wonderful group of colleagues and truly awesome students, a perfect combination for a great school.  Enjoy the week and Happy Monday 🙂

The Power of Positive Relationships

We had a lot of conversations at the beginning of the year about the importance of relationships, especially in our school community.  I’ve been having a lot more of these conversations recently, both here at AC and on my visit to Indonesia, and then I came across a fantastic blog post this week…I’m not sure I could’ve stressed the importance of relationships any more than Joe Robinson, a Middle School teacher in Alaska.  Here are a few highlights of the blog post and then a link to the actual post, go have a look, it’s outstanding!

“While most educators would acknowledge the importance of relationships, I think there is often  a lack of understanding as to the power relationship creates.”


“As a teacher, the environment you create for students within your classroom is the single greatest tool you have for engagement, empowerment, and growth.”


“It is imperative that teachers leverage this truth and use it to create environments that students WANT to be in.”


“The teacher who still views their role as “delivering content” because they are the “professional educator” is in danger of fracturing relationships with students that cannot afford to be fractured.”


“At the end of the day, students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.”
Go read this post…it’s wonderful!!!

Teenagers – Wild Animals

IMG_5524Last week Amy and I went to the coast to see Humpback Whales.  Just before we got on the boat our guide gave us the whole safety routine, then added one more piece that got me thinking.  Basically he said, these are wild animals and we never know what they’re going to do, we can’t predict their behavior so they may be jumping or we may not see anything, it’s nature.  

While we were motoring around looking for and watching whales I had a lot of time to think and I began connecting our guide’s warnings about wild animals to what we experience with teenagers on a regular basis.  Many outsiders, those NOT in education, view these lovely young adults as wild animals.  As I think about it, they’re not totally wrong!

Teens, the human variety, are capable of very high level thinking and processing.  They are empathetic, sympathetic, and very resilient.  Additionally, they are also full of hormones and are constantly changing.  In that regard they could be looked at much like the Humpback Whales I was hoping to see jumping all around me – wild and unpredictable.  

It would probably be a bit strange if I rallied all the teachers around each morning and reminded everyone about teenagers, “remember, these creatures are unpredictable…it’s nature, please be patient!”  However, it wouldn’t be untrue.  We’re dealing with some of the most diverse and rapidly changing brains in the world, no matter how well we think we know them nothing can be taken for granted.

The captain of our boat has been taking people on tours to watch whales for years now, he knows these waters and he has learned a lot about the movements of these massive mammals.  In an attempt to understand the wild, teenage minds that we encounter each day we work to establish positive relationships with our students.  By learning about their personalities we can better anticipate their learning styles and needs, much like the captain of our boat learning to anticipate the whales’ next move. We also have to remember that their brains are changing, each day may not guarantee the same interactions and behaviors as the last.

Keeping in mind that our kids are constantly changing is extremely important for the success of our young students.  Just as there will be days when the whales jump and there will be days when they don’t, the same can be said of our students – there will be good days and bad.  Also similar to the whales, we won’t ever know when these “jumping days” will happen for our students nor do we know when a bad day will strike.  The whales don’t jump every day but that doesn’t mean the captains don’t take tour groups out to sea in an effort to see them.  In the same spirit we must prepare to give every student the opportunity to “jump” each time we see them.

Creating the opportunity for kids to “jump” is what education is all about.  It won’t happen if they’re not comfortable and prepared, nor is it something we can force.  Each student is going to “jump” differently depending on a wide variety of factors.  Be ready for anything from these wild young minds, create the opportunity, and enjoy the show!  

What 6th Graders Know, That We (Adults) Have Forgotten

This past week I spent four days with the 6th graders on their “Week Without Walls” trip.  Being outdoors, in the fresh air and away from the day-to-day rhythm that life naturally falls into gave me a great chance to step back and think about a lot of things.  While most of my time was occupied by 30 11-year olds, I also had the chance to be inspired on a number of occasions by these dynamic pre-teens.

Believe it or not, one of the most inspiring moments of the trip came thanks to some good old fashioned 6th grade dramatics.  In brief, a couple kids were “in a fight”, there was a misunderstanding that had blown out of proportion because each side felt they were right.  After a long mediation session each of these young adults was able to see the other’s perspective.  They resolved, for the future, to better communicate and seek to find a resolution before reaching such elevated levels of conflict.  At the end of the day this interaction could’ve been any two 6th graders, anywhere in the world…there was nothing particularly special about the interaction.  However, it seemed special at the time and it got me thinking…

Why is it so easy for our students (the younger ones in particular) to forgive and forget?  How do they so easily move on from such interactions?  After thinking about this and watching with a more focused eye, I think I saw some hints as to what might be the real secret – it comes down to their relationships and their flexibility.

One fact is simple, they’re malleable.  These young minds are fully aware that they, in fact, don’t know everything.  They can step back and admit that they were wrong or that they could’ve handled a situation better and they grow from it, they truly are reflective creatures (even if that doesn’t always seem to be the case!)  I often wonder, as we go along the road to adulthood, does this skill fade…do we become the “old dog” who can’t “learn new tricks”?  Or does our Mindset change as we age and, supposedly, grow wiser?

They’re empathetic as well.  It’s one thing to be malleable, but if you can’t see the other side then how can you grow?  It hit me like a ton of bricks how empathy just oozes out of these kids.  As adults I expect that many of these kids will brush off such “childish” issues in the future, but right now they have a superhuman ability to truly feel the emotions of their friends (and even sometimes their combatants).  This can prove difficult when ten kids are reacting to one friend’s pain/heartache/perceived injustice, but when it comes to conflict resolution this empathy is a true superpower!

Most importantly, however, these 6th graders know each other and they know each other well.  They’ve built relationships consistently for a long time (some of them for years).  Some are better friends and have more positive relationships than others but there is a certain level of understanding that exists amongst all of these kids.  They know each other’s secrets and they know each other’s buttons (and how to push them!)  As 6th graders, these kids are in the beginning stages of learning to interact successfully with their peers provided all of these new-found interpersonal insights.  For some it has opened doors, they’ve built their friend circle and are enjoying the fruits of such understandings.  The relationships they’ve built can withstand misunderstandings and “fights”.  These kids can fully engage in a disagreement, resolve the issues and go back to being best friends within minutes…it truly is a superpower.

As educators, and people in general, I believe that we have a lot to learn from these young minds.  While watching and learning from these mini-adults I realized I needed to work harder myself.  It dawned on me that I didn’t know these kids as well as some groups of kids I’ve worked with in the past.  I was forced to consider how this could impact my interactions with them.  Had I built up enough of a positive relationship with each of these kids?  Enough to withstand a difficult conversation and still come away with a mutual level of respect?  Since so many of my student interactions tend to be related to behavior or academic discipline I grew concerned.  Luckily I’ve been down this road and I feel confident in my ability to build relationships…I jumped right in and began connecting with students – it turned out to be the best part of my week!

How have you worked to connect with your students?  Have you built the level of relationship that is strong enough to withstand those difficult moments and come out the other side strong?

Take a step back and think about the relationships you’ve built…could they be strengthened?  I know I’ll be working hard to (re)connect with students over the coming weeks, especially those with whom my connections are weakest.  Building the positive couldn’t be more important and it’s never too late to jump in!

Fiestas de Quito

I thought about going against the obvious this week and NOT writing about Fiestas de Quito but after experiencing such amazing performances by our Middle School and High School students I just couldn’t resist celebrating the awesomeness!!

In the weeks leading up to Fiestas de Quito there has been a lot of time and energy put into this celebration of the founding of Quito.  Our Spanish Department deserves a lot of recognition for the time, effort, and crazy amounts of energy they’ve put into helping our students plan such beautiful performances.  Being new to Quito I couldn’t quite fathom the scale to which this celebration would go, it was mind-blowing!  ¡Muchas gracias!

Our students held nothing back and demonstrated an amazing amount of pride, not only in Quito, but in themselves and the work they put in preparing for these performances.  To watch our students push themselves out of their comfort zones while on stage in front of a standing-room only crowd was absolutely inspiring.  I’m impressed more and more everyday with the level to which our students are willing to be risk takers.  However, Fiestas de Quito took that to a whole new level, providing them with a context in which they were engaged and excited to share their efforts and talents with our community.

As educators this is what we strive for, creating an atmosphere for our students that allows them to take risks, learn, and grow in a manner that is comfortable for them.  As I walk around Academia Cotopaxi I see this happening everyday.  Our students are comfortable in their classes and feel safe in their learning environment.  Students see their teachers and the other adults at school as people who care about them, people they can go to if they need help.  The positive relationships we build with our students here at AC create an atmosphere filled with daily opportunities to learn and grow.

Fiestas de Quito is a wonderful opportunity for our community to come together and celebrate the amazing city we are privileged to call home.  As you enjoy the festivities and revelry take a second to stop and think about how you are working to build the positive.  Have a look at this very brief post by best-selling author Jon Gordon.  He talks about the power of positive interactions and the ratio of positive to negative that his research shows to be the tipping point for effectiveness.  It’s very interesting and has applications to life in general (and certainly has implications for the classroom).  Very interesting stuff 🙂

Enjoy the music and parades everyone!  

¡Viva Quito!

Inspiration from Harvard Graduate School of Education

This week I had a whole other topic written out and then I came across some great stuff.  I was reading through a few of my older Marshall Memos when I stumbled upon some awesome videos.  If you follow this link you can see Eight 8-minute talks about education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education:×8-hgse-faculty-share-their-bold-ideas-improve-education

I highly recommend any of the eight videos but these specific few may be more relevant to our context than the others.  Here are the relevant titles along with Kim Marshall’s brief summaries of each.  Do your students a favor and take 8 minutes to watch one of these (or more) videos.

Karen Brennan: Getting Unstuck – Helping students and teachers move beyond using social media and use computers more powerfully. Brennan describes using ScratchEd, a platform for creating projects, and students’ problem-solving strategies when they’re stuck.

Todd Rose: The End of Average (Bret’s personal favorite) – What neuroscientists have found about how differently people remember and process information, leading to the conclusion that we can’t understand individual brains by using group averages. The same goes for how we deal with students; we must treat them as individuals, which we now can do better with recent advances in classroom technology.

Karen Mapp: Linking Family Engagement to Learning – Relationships between schools and families have to be relational, interactive, collaborative, developmental, and linked to what students are learning, says Mapp, so that families can be more effective supporting learning at home. In particular, Mapp is critical of traditional open-house meetings in schools.

Howard Gardner: Beyond Wit and Grit  – Our understanding of “wit” has been expanded to include multiple intelligences, says Gardner, and we now realize the importance of “grit” – the cluster of non-cognitive skills. But these are not enough. Gardner believes we also need a moral dimension. “You can have plenty of grit, and multiple wits,” he says, “but they need to be directed towards becoming a good person, a good worker, and a good citizen… There’s a ‘triple helix’ of good work and good citizenship: excellence, ethics, and engagement.”