Many of us educators of a more mature vintage would recall being told the classic "children should be seen and not heard" line often and by many family members in the home and beyond, and indeed teachers too in a range of academic locations. Thankfully now so much has changed and when the students in my class can only be seen and not heard, I get worried, really worried.
Sir Ray Avery, Ian Taylor, CBE and the author
Yesterday I had the the privilege of hearing "two of the smartest guys in the room" speak. In the afternoon, It was Ian Taylor, the founder of Animation Research Limited and yes, years ago a presenter on Spot On (a legendary children tv show back in the 80s). Ian was the keynote speaker at Interface Magazine's Edtech expo in Manukau. Later on in the evening, it was Sir Ray Avery's turn as one of Sparklab's Innovation speakers. Both men have been highly successful in their chosen careers and care deeply not only about those around them but also about the country socially and economically now and going forward. Both men are very, very smart and savvy businessmen but when I got time to spend with each of them on a one-to-one basis, it became very apparent that there is a number of reasons why these two are literally the smartest guys in the room.
My Year 11 English class's weekly #VIP session
Often I wonder if there is an unwritten rule that I don't know about, that bans fun in high school learning spaces. I know students of teenage years do have a lot of fun at school but it appears that this enjoyment occurs for the most part, outside of the classroom rather than inside where it would be most valuable. Now I'm not saying every lesson has to resemble a comedy show or a circus (not that either would be a bad thing) but I do think we as high school educators tend to take (or more accurately) present the learning of our students a little too earnestly, maybe just a little too seriously?
Every Thursday morning,we start our double period of Year 11 English a little different to our other English lessons and no doubt most other high school classes. At 9.40am every Thursday, the students in my class dance in various shapes and modes for one minute to a different student-chosen song each week. But what's the point? Well, there's actually many and for a range of outcomes
Earlier today, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a #engagechat twitter chat moderated by Eric Davis on Gifted Education. What I love about Eric's US-based chat is 1) it often features participants I don't usually have a lot of contact with and 2)the chat content is also often very different from a traditional Australasian twitter chat. By the chat's close, the many participants (who ranged from Gifted and Talented Coordinators to full-on sceptics and the likes of me somewhere in between) in my opinion raised almost as many questions as were ideas and provocations suggested. The chat led me to think deeply and confrontingly about one pivotal question, "Are school-centric gifted and talented programmes worth it, really worth it?"
A long time ago in a university far, far ago, this teacher left the hallowed halls of Massey University no longer a teacher trainee or student but a fully qualified provisionally registered teacher. I was ready for the classroom, at least my enthusiasm was. Talent and ability could always come later!
The Manurewa Intermediate Skatarama
On my way home last night, I finally pulled over and took the above photo. But what's so special about this photo I hear you think? How does this photo suggest that this is a #coolschool. Well for what it's worth, here's my argument. The concrete structures visible in the photo behind the gate and in the school are the intermediate's very own skate park. Yip, that's right, this school has its own skate park. Wow! What is even more impressive that they publicise it through two massive signs (one is visible). What is even, even more impressive is that the facility is completely spotless, no rubbish or graffiti visible what-so-ever.
In this, the last of three articles on how students "rate" your class, we look at the most influencing entity in any classroom or learning space, that's right the teacher. For all the extolling about student agency and independence, it is still for better or worse, the educational professional in the room who determines the type of pedagogy-in-play. As a result, it is the teacher and student dynamic that to many students, is the most common lens through which they rate a class and by default the teacher.
When we think about it, teachers are the odd ones out in any learning space. We are often far older than the other people in the classroom, the only ones being paid and in reality, the least important stakeholder when it comes to the significance of academic success. Teachers for the most part, get paid on longevity of service and while remuneration is moderated by qualifications, most teachers are paid fairly similar regardless of student satisfaction or otherwise.
Students often follow teachers rather than subjects. I, as a student changed classes to ensure I was in the same learning space as a Mathematics teacher, generally and widely regardless as very, very good by students at Awatapu College in the early 1990s. In my time as a student and my incumbent time as a teacher, it is not surprising that the personality of the teacher has a lot to do with how students feel about one class compared to another. When you as a student are in the same classroom as an adult educator up to five times a week, it is far easier for all parties if co-existence is to the positive, if not at the very least, neutral.
When I asked my English students how do they rate a teacher, they went quickly beyond "looks" (thankfully!) and instead focused on the following critical (to them) elements:
Students rated classes and teachers where not only did they have a voice, but where this voice was not only listened to, but where appropriate was acted upon by the teacher concerned. Many students despite being asked for their feedback feel this is tokenism at best and the teacher is not listening or prepared to take on board the voicings expressed. Almost every student who responded, pointed out the futility of class-asked questions which appear to the students as almost teaching-by-numbers and aiming at everyone and hitting no-one. Students in a counter context felt challenged, empowered and valued when questioned 1:1. In such a localised situation, students had time and also a confidence to present their answers and just as much, their doubts in terms of subject content. Students also felt more likely to approach the teachers who practised 1:1 questioning as they felt this teacher (or type of teacher) was more accessible and valuing of the individual learning experiences within the one classroom setting.
In a incredibly diverse and multi-cultural school such as Aorere College, students also rate teachers and classes where their culture is acknowledged, respected and where the teacher makes an effort to try (in this teacher's case, not always successfully) to pronounce Polynesian, Maori and a range of other non-English names and words correctly. In all honesty, I do struggle at times with some Polynesian names but never-the-less, the students appreciate my valiant efforts and my persistent willingness to accept the student (or students) concerned teaching me the correct pronunciation. I never used to think too much about the correct pronunciation of names when I was in predominantly European schools. However having now travelled a fair bit now, I can understand how frustrating it is when your name (an indelible part of you) is mispronounced and even more so, when little effort is made in terms of the correct pronunciation. When students are valued and respected and feel as such as individuals, good teachers know that the learning process becomes far easier and enduring for all parties concerned.
Students of mine over the years have always been quick to point out how much teacher movement influences how much they think of a class. Many students with (unfortunately) considerable ease, recall a number of teachers who arose from their desk only to greet and dismiss their students, if that. Teachers who resided behind a front-of-classroom desk are seen by students as mere transmitters of knowledge and content and ones who appear to have little interest in student production and/or conversation. I do note that teachers in high schools do tend to "live" at their desks a lot more than is common-place in intermediate or primary schools. No doubt, the activity and student energy in these latter locations necessitate greater teacher movement and collegial engagement. I have never been a fan of teachers sitting predominately at their desk while a class is in session, least of all at the front of a class. It is not realistic to expect a student unsure of current work to walk the trek of shame past their student colleagues and up to the front of the class. When teachers are up and moving, not only is off-task behaviour a lot more difficult, by virtue of the teacher being amongst the students, such locations suggest more "us" than "you and me" and also enables discreet checking of understanding by both teacher and student more readily.
Lastly according to my students, the final way they rate your class is in terms of the expectations and academic rigour. Students (I am informed) want deadlines, affirmative academic empowerment and pressure to learn. Students who do not face teacher pressure to complete tasks on time and to an appropriate level often talk much about only learning from the outcome, and little from the process. Those students in the higher levels also want to be seen as growing and emerging adults both in education and in society. They understand and respect guidelines (even more so when legitimately co-constructed) over dictatorial non-negotiated rules. Students rate teachers who each day expect greatness from those, regardless of what has occurred the day or even week before. Now I'm no brilliant pedagogical expert but I think I do know the importance of my students leaving my classroom each day knowing that this educator not only thinks each student can do well, but that they should and will. If a teacher fails to clearly show perpetual belief in his or her students, what chance do the relevant students have? Educators need to be remember that even the smartest of our youth, are just that, our "youth". In fact, many of the smartest students I have ever taught have ironically needed more empathetic and encouraging support and on a more often basis than many regular students. Many of these students have been in my opinion, well beyond their years in academic competency but often far less so in terms of emotional and social competency. Any student who feels safe (in all its forms), valued and individually respected and expected, will flourish and acknowledge those teacher(s) who want the best for them now and in the future.
In closing, teachers hold and will continue to hold immense influence in any learning space. They can literally raise or crush student engagement, achievement and belief often with little knowledge of the impact of their actions. For teachers to be successful, they need to ensure the individuals over the students in front of them are targeted, supported and believed in individually and collectively. In so doing, teachers and classes will be rated not just for their current effectiveness but for student and personal benefit beyond the leaving behind of the school environment and its incumbent learning environments. To be respected in the future over being liked in the now must surely be the preference for all teachers. Now that's what I call really being rated.
The best advice I have ever got about blogging was to write on what I want and never on what I want people to hear. Even so, I was very surprised at the response to "How students rate your class: Part 1." Even my students were very pleased with the honesty and accuracy of the article from their point of view. What's even cooler was that once they had had finished the article, they had no hesitation in "informing" of all the other ways they rate classes. To say their contributions were enlightening would be a severe understatement.
Student attendance, participation and engagement. My students have always impressed me (for the most part, after they are teenagers!) with their attendance, participation and engagement. In reality, I don't need to ask them if they're engaged and thus learning, I can see it, hear it and feel it. Teachers know! For a number of years, it has been very obvious to me for a number of years that student attendance is the most powerful indicator of the extent to which students value and "rate" their classes. Initially, it is not uncommon for students to seek out learning spaces and classes with teachers they like due to the non-academic freedom and lack of course hardness. After a while however, students seek out classes that challenge them in the now and will prepare them more for the future in and out of the classroom. To this extent, I have always been conscious of my classes being respected for their future value while not necessarily being liked in the interim. I also endeavour to make the course/class valuable and academically enjoyable to the students not due to the teaching personality in front (although this does play a part) but the quality of the learning experience, empowerment and learning space. Let's be honest, some students don't fit with "school" and so seek to withdraw from all their learning environments. For the most part however, and evidence supports this, many students vary their attendance from class to class, often seeking to spend more time in classes that don't have a one size-fits-all approach and prioritise student choice and learning over teaching. To be blunt, if students are in school but not in your class, this should speak volumes that you the teacher simply must hear. Is the work too hard, too removed from their context, or do they simply feel like a passenger in the learning journey?
At Aorere College, we have awesome teachers and simply amazing students. Yet occasionally I am surprised when I visit a class of students that are involved in a collaborative and/or group activity and some students (despite the appeal of the activity to this old campaigner) are still sitting on the outer and in the class but not in the activity itself. As a a huge sports fan, I used to loved Physical Education (PE), the theory and of course the practical undertakings. Yet often when I see classes of this subject playing tag or netball some students are sitting on the sidelines often presenting a visage of almost depression. I find this occurrence even more intriguing when this class in question is not a compulsory subject but one they have chosen to be a part of. A number of students particularly in terms of senior PE classes severely underestimate how rigorous the academic elements of the course and severely overestimate just how much play they will be exposed to. Furthermore, students in subjects where their efforts are clearly visible to classmates need to feel comfortable in this visibility and have an allowance of student agency in terms of participation levels. The choice of participation levels to some extent has been the key to the success of my English class' #VIP sessions which involves the whole class and all teachers in attendance every Thursday lesson starting the period dancing for one minute to a student-chosen song. Students by collective agreement have to be involved but the level of dancing is completely up to them and no recording or criticism is allowed.
It is one thing to have students in you class, it is another to have students in your class participating, it is a whole new level to have students rate your class through engagement. Now we're not just talking semantics here. Engagement over participation is about ownership over mere reception. When students are engaged, l believe students are rating positively the learning and indeed the class for its current and future benefits. Experienced teachers know that engaged students are the ones that don't want to leave the learning-in-process, let alone the class at its timed conclusion. The engaged students literally run to the class and grudgingly trudge away, almost desperate for the next learning episode. I know that my students are engaged and appropriately rate my class when they are frustrated if I don't get there on time or change the learning-in-play without their input and consideration. The ultimate way to qualify just how engaged your students are, is to be aware of the student leadership in and around the learning. If the students are merely doing the work, to me that's participation, if they're questioning the nature of the work or individually owning and extending the learning, that's engagement. The number one indicator that students rate your class and in the inherent learning? Academic questioning and reflections by the students to you and to each other. This is where students rate learning through ceasing to be mere consumers and increasingly become the producers and consumers of their own learning.
In reality, all teachers want to be respected and liked for the learning they provide to their students. We want attending, participating and engaged students increasingly leading their own learning and futures. They are the stakeholders, we need to see them in effect as our customers. If these customers don't like our service or products, they will go elsewhere. And as we know, the customer is always right, whether we like it or not!
Our Aorere Digital visitors from Longburn Adventist College
Today, Aorere College hosted three staff members from Longburn Adventist College (Manawatu, New Zealand). keen to get a first-hand experience of our digital learning platform and experience. Longburn Adventist College is a mid-size co-educational school that has a big and aspirational modern learning desire. Even though these fine people were our guests and the idea was that they would learn from us, by the end of the visit, I could not believe just how much we had learned from their visit. Confused? Please let me explain.
To be fair, our digital evolution has been described by many people as almost "too fast"; ironically for us particularly those of us who are part of Aorere Digital, we like to think our progress has been not fast enough! It is only when one has visits such as this one that we have time and indeed a necessity to sit back and think "what have we done?" and in terms of what we have done, "how good have we done?" Over the three and a half hour visit, the highly committed and clearly capable visitors asked a range of questions that we rarely hear or no longer hear at Aorere College. Thankfully we passed this series of impromptu test questions but the point however was made very clear to us, the hosts. One must also take time to stop and reflect and in reality, stop and smell the roses. In being questioned by someone not of our community, a real focus was put on what is valued by another school and as a result maybe what should be valued or be valued more by our school.
The three staff members arrived not only with great questions but also a real freshness and genuine willingness to enquire but at the same time challenge us on our practices, policies and vision. Rather than be offended, it signaled to me and my team that this school is in safe hands now and in even safer hands in the future as they move forth in terms of their digital progression. The fresh perspective reminded me that we often need to keep looking objectively at what we are doing, often from the outside in and with respect to not just our community but also with respect to the wider national and global communities of which we also of. I learnt a great deal from these visitors as they saw things as they are and not what had been before or what we want to come.
One of the visitors during morning tea made a comment that surprised yet pleased me and my team. Over the course of the morning, I had spent a lot of time explaining our network ,devices, teacher and student engagement. It was a real surprise at morning tea when the focus of the conversation was not around any of the above but on how the school had established such a strong culture in terms of our digital elements. This was a really perceptive observation and to be honest, one that my team and I hadn't really put much thought or consideration into. Looking back now and at the culture referred to in the discussion, it is quite clear that whether planned or otherwise, our collegial and collaborative approach to Aorere Digital has in reality fast-tracked not only our evolution but also the breadth of updtake and willingness of our staff to accept and embrace fail-learning. If we didn't have a culture where staff could take risks or try new apps or learning contexts, there is no doubt that staff would default to the conservative, not try at all or in many cases even withdraw or recede.
As we travelled around the various classes and our wonderful students had no difficulty extolling the virtues (or otherwise) and their opinions of everything from the state of the Wi-Fi to required devices to being world-ranked for teen fiction on wattpad, I was starkly reminded of the key reason for all the device introductions, network and filter upgrades, and our compulsory digital citizenship sessions. It wasn't for fame or certainly fortune. It was not even for the students now. I was clearly reminded that everything Aorere has done, is doing and will do, is for the students' now and their futures and their families' and wider communities' future and indeed if I can be a little bit selfish, this writer's future as well. The more we provide for these students now, our adults, leaders and workers of tomorrow, the better for them, me and all of us.
Not bad learning eh, particularly when we were the hosts of the visit this time. Next time we host, you can be sure we'll be ready to not only give as much as we can, but take as many lessons as we can from our visit and indeed our visitors. Right then, who's our next visitors?