Tag Archives: Communication

What Students Want

Recently I wrote a piece about asking students for feedback, which I have since discussed with several friends who are also educators. Subsequently, I had a conversation with a teacher assistant who is working towards teacher certification. She had a few questions that made me smile because they were questions that I first had in her shoes many years ago, questions that I grapple with often. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to outline a few themes that came through in the DP Psychology course evaluations from my grade 12 students. As their words suggest, students appreciate the following:

Opportunities to learn from each other

I believe that the world needs good people, and I believe that good people work together. They support one another, they work towards shared goals, and they do what is right for the benefit of the group. Schools are phenomenal places of socialization and I’ve learned that these are the lessons that carry outside of the classroom and into the real world. Therefore, one strategy I often use in class is “jigsaw” learning. Divide a task into pieces, share the pieces among the group, conclude the task in a way that requires all pieces to come together. For example, if an essay question contains three parts and then requires an overall evaluation, all three parts must be complete before the group can work together on the evaluation.

But what if he doesn’t do his part, or she completes hers to a much higher degree than they do?

Certainly, this happens. But this is where the framing comes in. When this is framed as an opportunity for students to learn from each other rather than just to complete a task, interaction is more positive. When jigsaw activities provide a means of sharing a range of examples and information in circumstances where there is choice in what students ultimately decide to study, sharing knowledge means that a student might find what a peer has to say more interesting than what they themselves had prepared. In this case, the student has some background knowledge when it comes to making the choice to study a different example than the one they were originally assigned. A student’s overall success does not depend on peers, but working as a group gives everyone a clearer point from which to start.

Real deadlines

I am a stickler for deadlines and have always been. Normal classroom interactions, regardless of grade level, are as follows:

  • “I didn’t finish this.” –> “Submit what you have now.”
  • “Can I have more time?” –> “Submit what you have now and if you’d like to make changes, you have until X time. At that point, I’ll mark whatever is submitted.”
  • “I’m not ready for this test.” –> “Give it a try and if it’s a disaster, we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Do we have to turn this in today?” –> “Yes.”

(Full disclosure: There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

When students ask, as they always do, why deadlines matter, the answer is straightforward:

Deadlines matter because everything operates within the context of a bigger picture. If the problem is procrastination (this is very often the case, and the issue of distraction due to technology grows more alarming with every passing year) postponing a deadline will not solve the problem. Instead, it will exacerbate the problem by creating a domino effect with other deadlines.

Deadlines matter because they allow teachers to catch significant errors when there is still a chance to fix them.

Deadlines matter because unlike the students I work with, who are going through the IB Diploma Programme for the first time, I actually do know how the two-year program works, where the areas of difficulty are likely to be, what to watch out for, and the fluctuations in work ethic that occur throughout. It is not my first time guiding students through this program and that expertise counts.

The easiest example of maintaining real deadlines is with the submission of my students’ replication of a psychology experiment, an internal coursework component that makes up 20-25% of their final official psychology grade. Many students complain about the deadline and protest that we are months ahead of the IB required submission date. Yes we are, I tell them, and you will have plenty to do between now and then. Invariably, every single year, we laugh at this before students go off on study leave. They are always glad that this task was one more thing off the to-do list that never ends.

Organization

A number of years ago, when I moved into a school system that was fully integrated with technology, I started keeping daily plans for my students on blogs and websites with links to all of the resources we would need for that day. This evolved to include search functions, folders of resources, calendars, key words tags, and useful external links. Parents love it because class becomes transparent, and students love it because they know exactly what to do when they’re out and they know where to find everything we’ve ever done in class. When revising for an exam that covers two years of coursework, knowing where to find materials is especially useful. If I am organized, it takes that cognitive load away from my students and allows them to focus on the aspects of learning that require their individualized attention.

My students also wrote about how helpful it was to learn how exam questions are constructed, to begin every unit with a revision document that we filled out in sections throughout the unit, and to follow the same patterns and procedures over and over again. By the end of the course, our psychology key ideas organisers should contain absolutely everything students need to study. And I have heard from students over and over that while there is a lot in these documents, they work.

Thoughtful use of time

I think that one of the reasons students complain about school is similar to one of the reasons adults complain about meetings – they feel that their time is being wasted. I am all for teachers developing a rapport with students. This is critical to creating environments conducive to learning and and to getting to know one another as people, which is essential for working together. However, there is a time and a place. There is a time to laugh and joke, a time to tell a quick story, and a time to spend a few extra minutes on one topic over another.

On the other hand, classroom time is limited and there is a lot that is important to do during that time. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get caught up in tangentially related ideas, or to spend too much time sharing an interesting story and not enough time following the plan for the day.

We all know that it can be fun to get distracted in class, for teachers as well as students, and I have learned that students appreciate when teachers have an eye on this. There is always a lot to do and it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that it gets done and to make sure that limited time is used well.

A general sense of security

Overall, I think this comes down to the message that students appreciate actions demonstrating that teachers know what they’re doing and are working to help students achieve their goals. They want to know that teachers make decisions based on what works for students, that teachers are consistent, and that their time in school is valuable. They want to be treated with dignity and respect – and don’t we all?


Shortly after I wrote the first outline for this blog post at the beginning of April, this article came out. It says in better words, backed up with research rather than anecdotes, what I am trying to say here. “Calm, clear, and kind” are the themes that come through. And again, isn’t that what we all want in our interactions?

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” – Hanna Holborn Gray

From the Heart: Learning German Idioms

Learning a language is about much more than vocabulary (there are common words that I have to look up every single time I come across them), grammar (there are between six and sixteen ways to say “the” in German, depending on how you’re counting), and pronunciation (adding “chen” to the end of a word is a common diminutive and my tongue just doesn’t do this properly).

Learning a language is about understanding how the language flows and how it feels. It takes time to learn common slang, filler words in casual conversation, and the appropriate feedback noises to indicate that you’re listening, or whether you agree or disagree. I’m often really quiet in groups of German speakers (which is admittedly sometimes also the case with English speakers), both because it helps just to listen and because once I’ve crafted a comment or a response, the conversation has probably moved on. Interjecting in a group of more than three people remains a challenge.

But after over a year of learning German and almost nine months living here, communicating in German is becoming easier, more comfortable, and much more aligned with what I actually think and feel rather than being determined by my language acquisition skills. I find myself dreaming in German, particularly when I know I’m going to be in a setting where I am the only non-native German speaker. While this is not entirely relaxing, it does indicate that my brain is processing this language and I find the neuroscience fascinating.

Making progress in German has also led to learning the idioms that make up far more of language than I realized. I remember learning idioms in French but I don’t remember using them, perhaps because I studied French in school surrounded by other French learners whereas I’m learning German surrounded by native speakers. I’ve been particularly taken by the frequency of German idioms that refer to the heart (das Herz) and I think they do a lovely job of dispelling the stereotypes of Germans as stiff and unfriendly, law-abiding and bureaucratic, and lacking in a sense of humour.

Some German idioms that reference the heart are similar to those that do so in English. The literal translation of sein Herz ausschütten, for example, is to pour one’s heart out. But rather than wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, the German version, das Herz auf der Zunge tragen, literally translates to carrying one’s heart on one’s tongue. And whereas an English speaker knows the feeling where the heart drops into the stomach, the German sensation is the one in which das Herz rutscht in die Hose, or the heart drops into the pants.

Interestingly, the preoccupation with the mind in English becomes that of the heart in German. While English speakers would refer to being of one mind, Germans would say ein Herz und eine Seele sein, to be a heart and a soul. There is also etwas auf dem Herzen haben, literally to have something on the heart. In English, something is on the mind. To ask someone what is troubling them is to ask, “Was liegt dir auf dem Herzen?” I wonder if it feels different when something lies on the heart than on the mind. Additionally, rather than the idea that great minds think alike, Germans would say “Du sprichst mir aus dem Herzen.” The translation, you speak to my heart, conjures a different sense of understanding an individual and I like this very much.

German also has several expressions surrounding the idea of striking up the courage to do something or getting up the nerve to do something. In German, an individual can grip one’s heart (sich ein Herz fassen), take one’s heart into one’s hand (das Herz in die Hand nehmen), or give one’s heart a prod (seinem Herz einen Stoss geben). There is no question here about where courage or nerve comes from.

My German friends speak excellent English but I so enjoy just sitting back and listening when they speak to one another in German. Modes of expression are different, emotions and opinions are conveyed differently, and humour takes on a different tone. When commentary is provided in English, either before or after a discussion in German, the commentary is similar rather than the same. The languages embody different ways of being and are therefore different ways of knowing one another.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I decided to learn German so that I would be able to meet people where and as who they are. That my social interactions occur in a combination of languages provides an environment that I haven’t been in before, and one in which I occupy a different place than I might otherwise. As a person, I am often looking to understand rather than to be understood and the shift in focus is compelling. To speak to a person’s heart takes time, patience, and practice, and I am grateful to have a supportive community with which to do so.

Saying “I’m Sorry”

A brief introduction to this post: I have been thinking a lot about growth lately. After reflecting on past experiences, I have watched myself act in ways that demonstrate that I have actually learned something. This has been critical but is not always comfortable. It is difficult to put myself in a position of vulnerability, but it is also the only way that I can live up to the pictures I paint on this blog. I am grateful for what I have learned and for all who have taught me. To those who were gracious enough to give me multiple chances, to those who heard my awkward apologies, to those who looked me in the eye when looking back was the hardest thing to do: I am still sorry and I thank you.

I am sorry . . . .
if
that
but
you

I thought . . .
meant
didn’t

But you . . .
and so
it’s just

I guess . . .
next time
differently.

It can be hard to apologize. It can be hard to admit that we were wrong, that we hurt someone else, that we misunderstood or misinterpreted or made a mistake. It can be hard to acknowledge that we didn’t behave in the ways that we should have and that our behaviour was harmful.

To apologize means to stand before another person and admit to being fallible, to having erred, to being human. It means wanting to do better and, significantly, taking the steps necessary to do so. To apologize means asking for forgiveness, and asking for forgiveness, we often think, means handing someone else power.

And that is scary.

I’d like to offer something else here: Saying “I’m sorry” and then acting upon what it actually means to be sorry is not only an act of courage, but also an act of recognizing the humanity inside someone else.

Saying “I’m sorry” acknowledges that a wrong has been committed, that a relationship has the potential for being repaired, and that this is work we want to do. And we cannot do it alone.

To come together and rebuild takes not only compassion, but also grace. It takes setting aside ego and hierarchy and control and everything that separates us, and requires us to sit down together and acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, that being human can hurt and that humans cause hurt.

Saying “I’m sorry” recognizes that maybe we are too far gone, and that maybe the gulf is too wide to cross again. Maybe the trust that was once between us has shattered into too many pieces to reconstruct. Saying “I’m sorry” admits that this might be possible.

And this is scary.

But it also might be the only way to move on, even if we aren’t moving on in the ways that we’d hoped. Sometimes life goes that way.

Given that our current cultural obsession with the self has created personalized environments in which each individual is at the centre, it is no wonder considering another perspective is challenging. After all, there are no other perspectives. It is no wonder that discourse and dialogue are anathema. After all, we “cancel” those with whom we disagree. To change one’s mind, which is what happens when we learn, is to flip-flop; to apologize is to capitulate, roll over, show weakness.

There is a great deal wrong here.

A genuine, heartfelt apology carries with it the possibility of making the world a better place. It is an act of building peace in our interactions, relationships, and everyday encounters. This is a powerful thing. No one ever said something so important was easy, though it might be easier than we think. Many things are this way when approached with honesty and openness rather than suspicion and competition.

Sometimes we are wrong, but we can mend those wrongs. This does not mean the harm disappears, or that everything goes back to the way it was before. It means that we forge new paths and learn new ways. We are marked by our experiences, and this is how our lives are constructed.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, or the way they might want to be treated.
Be kind.
Take a deep breath.
Do the hard thing.
Hold out your hand.

If we continue building this world into a better place, there will be someone there to take it.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021