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What Do Students Want?

My debate teacher in high school was one of three or four teachers who had a big impact on me that has extended well beyond the classroom. I learned so much and grew so much in that class, it really feels like it changed the trajectory of my life. Not just because I’ve ended up teaching debate for my career but in a million other ways as well. In my mind I’ve held her up as something of a perfect teacher: the person I should become. And yet, if I try to identify what particular skill she had as a teacher, I frankly can’t find much. She didn’t have incredibly high expectations for her students (in my first year I had to attend a total of one debate tournament). In her advanced classes there were very few structured activities. The times that she did lessons, I can’t identify them as being better prepared, better thought out, or better executed than a host of my other teachers. I can say, to her credit, that she didn’t use lecture as a teaching method. But beyond that, she seemed to be no more skilled, and in many ways perhaps less skilled than many of my teachers. And yet, there is no denying that I loved that class dearly, and I loved her as a teacher dearly. To think of it, even now, taps into a well of deep feeling for her and her class. At the time her class meant everything to me.

How to explain the contradiction? Perhaps it was just that I loved debate? I don’t think so. As I said, I loved not just the subject, but her as well. And, for example, I loved English as a subject too, but there was only one English class and only one English teacher that I really loved. Not only that, but everyone in the class seemed to love her. I know that not every student loved the subject, but still, they all used the nickname that we made up for her (it was “Welchy”). Everyone liked her. And despite the lack of requirements and structure, we all performed our best for her.

Looking back, I think there is basically one reason I loved that class so much. At that time (and I guess now too, if I’m willing to admit) I needed love so badly. I, like many teenagers, had so little love for myself. So I needed love like I needed water. And she gave it to me. She gave it to me and she gave it to all of us. She wasn’t at all effusive in expressing that love. It wasn’t so much that she wrote me personal notes or showed up to my wrestling meets (not that either of these are bad ideas). It was just that she seemed to like who I was and wanted me to be that person.

At the time, my classmates and I came up with a stupid game... or ritual.... honestly, it's difficult to know what to call it. We found a picture of a realtor in a real estate magazine that we thought was pretty funny. He had what we called a “sick mullet”. So we built a shrine to the realtor in the debate classroom. Surprisingly enough, she let us. What’s more, I knew she would let us. When another group of students stole the picture from the shrine and left a ransom note. She laughed about it. She rolled her eyes, but in a way that communicated that she thought we were funny, not stupid. In these, and a thousand other small acts, she let us know that she liked teenagers. She thought that we were fun and interesting and she liked being around us. She communicated in so many ways that she thought I was fun and interesting. She liked being around me. I can still recall specific conversations and even debates I had with her on bus rides to debate tournaments. As I consider the stuff I said I realize that the thoughts were not terribly mature nor well developed. But she didn’t dismiss them. She listened to them and shared what she thought. She fulfilled my need for what acclaimed psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” She communicated in so many ways that who I was and the place that I was at was an acceptable thing. And somehow, I couldn’t help believing her.

I wonder if I could adequately express how totally non-unique I was in my need for adults in my life to offer me that unconditional positive regard? I might have been able to believe that I was unique in that way as a teenager or as a young and inexperienced teacher. But now a thousand different experiences as a teacher have taught me that I needed what every student needs. Just one example- I had a student for many years who, to all appearance, was a thriving happy teenager. And as teenagers go, maybe he was. He was bright, had plenty of friends, did well in his schoolwork, and generally seemed to be getting along as a student and a teen swimmingly. After many years of teaching he asked me if he could talk to me after class one day. He wanted my thoughts on some things he was thinking about. This kicked off a series of conversations both painful and profound. At the heart of the conversations there was a question: am I acceptable? He feared deeply that he either did not deserve or would not receive the unconditional positive regard from the people he loved most. He looked so confident on the outside. On the inside he was just like everyone else- he needed love. The conclusion? It could not be more clear to me. If this student, who apparently had every duck in line, desperately needed love, then how blind would I have to be to not assume the same of every student I teach?

So what do students want? They want love.

It’s the same conclusion reached by teachers in an interesting study out of the Philippines. The study was conducted by interviewing thirteen award winning college professors. The point of the study wasn’t to examine how love influences a classroom. Instead it was simply to gain perspective from high achieving teachers on what should be considered excellence in teaching. In interviews, the teachers were asked the following questions-

  • What is your philosophy of teaching?

  • How do you describe your manner of relating with your students?

  • What is difficult/easy about being a teacher of excellence?

  • What does excellence in teaching mean to you?

  • What is your standard of excellence in teaching?

  • What essential qualities does a teacher of excellence have?

  • Describe one person who exemplifies “excellence in teaching”

As you can see, nothing in the questions specifically directed the teachers to talk about the importance of love in the classroom. And the teachers came from different backgrounds and taught different subjects (everything from medicine to literature). And yet, the main theme of the answers given by the professors ended up centered around the concept of love. Consider some of the answers to the questions (light editing has been applied to allow for clearer translation)-

  • “The more you give students, the more it will come back.”

  • “It’s love, when you give love, it’s reciprocated.”

  • “A teacher who is very giving inspires the same amount of giving.”

  • “Every student has potential.”

  • “They are like sleeping children that have to be awakened.”

  • “They have the right to knowledge.”

  • “Teach to teach the mind, touch the heart and transform lives."

  • “Understand themselves more than they understand the subject matter.”

  • “Developing the skills of self-appreciation and awareness of the world.”

  • “I’m available to them after class.”

  • “I’m more formal in the classroom. But my relationship is not as formal. I believe that teaching should be fun. So I find that the students laugh and have a good time in my class.”

  • I crack jokes . . .the Filipino way. I make fun of myself and also make fun of my students, although that’s not politically correct. But they know I’m just kidding. It’s probably a gift because nobody complains that “I’m the butt of the joke.” It’s not really making fun of them but making fun of the situation. . . of course they laugh.”

In these answers I read a deep appreciation for the value of each student, for the joy of being with them, for the fulfillment in seeing them grow, and for the desire to see them live happy and fulfilling lives. You can see why, at the conclusion of the study, the researchers offered the following definition of excellence in teaching-

“Excellence in teaching as conceived by the outstanding teachers is not merely scholarship in an area of knowledge. There is that voluntary reaching out of the teacher in a loving act of giving oneself to the students, sharing generously his passion for knowledge and really leaving a profound and lasting influence on the lives of the students. The teacher’s sensitiveness to the individual needs of students is a kind of attentiveness to them as persons of worth. The learner’s absorption in learning leading them to become learners for life occurs mainly as the effect of the teacher’s modeling in a caring, and inspiring execution of the teaching tasks.”

Coming to the conclusion that unconditional positive regard is one of the keys to great teaching has changed my teaching. But it has also changed what type of feedback I try to get from students. Each year I host a dinner for my graduated seniors. At the end of the dinner I sit them down and ask them some questions so that I can better understand their experiences in and perspectives of my class. One of those questions is- “I hope to have communicated that I cared about you individually during your time in my classes. If I succeeded would you be willing to share the first time that you felt that?” I want to understand what love looks like to a student. It turns out that it can look very different to different students. The following is a sample of answers that I’ve received in the last two years-

  • You were willing to goof around with us.

  • That ten minutes at the beginning of class where you would ask about our week always meant a lot to me.

  • You checked in with me after class because you thought I was having a hard day.

  • You learned my first and last name. My last name is hard, so most people don’t learn it.

  • I told you that something you were doing was bothering me and you stopped doing it.

  • You listened to me cry and vent and gave me encouragement.

  • You sent me an email to check on me after a tough discussion in class.

  • You thanked me for helping out at tournaments.

  • You wrote speeches you thought we should hear and delivered them to us.

There are other, more personal moments that students mention which I won’t share, but the above is a pretty good representation.

What is interesting about these answers is that I remember most of the instances that students mention. And yet, I don’t recall thinking of them as the moment that a student would know that I cared about them. Most of them are so mundane that you would never guess that this was a moment that would stick with a student. I started the exercise of asking these questions thinking that it would help me understand the kind of moments that I should have with students. But the moments turned out to be so unpredictable and often so bland, that it seems impossible to plan them in any way. So, instead I’ve taken the answers as guidance on the sort of teacher that I have to be, those answers have led me to the following conclusion.

Great teachers are the sort of people who find a lot of value and joy in every student. Not just the students they would naturally get along with in other contexts. Not just the ones who are natural scholars and behave themselves well in the classroom. Great teachers find value and joy in all of their students. Maybe they even particularly find value and joy in the students that are often labeled “annoying” or “troublemakers”. Great teachers have patience for the process of growth that students have to go through to become happy, capable, and well adjusted adults. When they look at the obstacles of teen life like insecurity, irresponsibility, rebellion, identity crisis, or trouble with friends, they don’t see annoying obstacles that get in the way of the important educational work they want to do in their class. Instead, they see students who need the sort of unconditional positive regard that helps them get through those difficulties. So often, adults talk about teens and teen life in unflattering ways. Great teachers, instead, see the unique attributes of teen life as part and parcel of what makes teenagers so fun and interesting to be around and such a joy to teach. At least, that is what the teachers who really made an impact on me acted like.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been that person for every student in every context. But I am dedicated to becoming more of that person for more students in more contexts for as long as I teach. There is so much to being a good teacher, you can spend a whole lifetime becoming a teacher and continue to get better all the time. But if I had to choose a single attribute that makes teachers excellent, it is their commitment to be the loving teacher that students need for as many students and in as many contexts as they can. You can learn the rest, but if you don’t have that commitment, then I think teaching is not for you. You wouldn’t be able to give students what they want, because what they want is love.


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