Tag Archives: Students

How I Work with Students

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of education students at the university where I did my Bachelor’s degree. The professor was one of my advisors when I did my Master’s elsewhere and we bonded immediately over having the same advisors once upon a time, her as a PhD student and me as an undergrad. She’d invited me to Skype with her class about teaching overseas.

As I talked, I realized that I knew a few things. I realized that I’ve come to both understand and actualize, to the best of my ability, how I view my role as an educator.

To summarize: Working with students is a social contract in which I am responsible for helping young people succeed.

To clarify: Success does not have a single meaning. Social contract may not even have a single meaning; rather, it means that I walk out the gate every day knowing that I have done, to the best of my ability, what is right for young people. I owe that to them. Not to their parents. Not to the institution. I owe that to the kids.

Nearly three years ago, when writing about education became important to me, I articulated my opinions on good teachers. But there are some important elements that I missed, things that have become clearer to me as I’ve gained life experience.

I think that my work with students can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Positive rapport
  2. Structure
  3. Tools

Positive Rapport

I care deeply about my students, both as classroom learners and as people. My students are people first (aren’t we all?) and we happen to spend time together in a classroom. This comes with constraints, rules, responsibilities, and expectations for all of us. But they know, and I know, that their experiences, their hopes and dreams, their insecurities and fears, are what drives the work that we do. That’s what drives the relationships we have.

I know who’s taking the SAT over the weekend and I know who went out to dinner because I ask and they tell me. When I mentioned that my arms were sore, they reminded me that I’d gone climbing several days earlier. They’d remembered.

When I talk excitedly about books, some students go out and buy them. When a student recommended a novel, I got a copy and read it. We laugh and we joke and after knowing each other for long enough, we tease a little bit. Because we really are all in this together.

Recently, a student asked me to look over a creative writing assignment. I’d never heard his writing like that before and was touched that he’d shared it with me. Another student sat with me last week to set up a study calendar. Three students in the last two weeks have come to talk about social dilemmas and others spend time in my classroom during break times because they know they can.

And I’m not always friendly, not at all. In fact, students usually characterize me, or so they tell me with smiles on their faces, as intimidating. But they know where my heart is and that makes a difference. Reputations are built. This matters.

The rapport I develop with young people, then, is possible because of attention to the next two categories: structure and tools.

Structure

I spent part of the weekend in a workshop about assessment and I was shocked at how new it seemed to so many people. It made me wonder what happens in their classes. It made me wonder about the learning experiences of their students.

Students report being comfortable in my class because they know exactly what is expected of them. I’m meticulously organized, which makes it easy for them to be so. I have a deep understanding of both content and what actually matters so I can guide my students through it. This matters.

At the end of the day, my job is to prepare students for the IB exam they will take at the end of grade 12, but my goal overall is for students to understand more about who they are and what exists in the world around them. My students know this because we talk about it all the time.

Class is organized and we operate in a very specific way. There’s predictability, consistency, and explicit attention to why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s a lot easier to put pieces together when you know where you’re supposed to end up. And it’s easy to trust someone who has handed you a map and makes sure you know how to follow it.

This is not to say that students don’t find themselves stressed and anxious. On the contrary, they very much do even though it doesn’t come directly from me. But we talk about good stress, bad stress, and stress management. We explore the myths and pressures that come from “somewhere out there” and talk about what is realistic and what is important. And if today is a bad day, we talk about what to do differently tomorrow.

The point of today is to learn from the successes, errors, and experiences of yesterday and that’s what we do. That’s what we do every single day.

Tools

Over the years I’ve learned where students struggle and with what. I’ve been working to understand why they run into problems and I’ve reorganized objectives, assessments, and lessons to address these problems. I’ve talked openly with my students about what I notice and ask for their input. I’ve tried some of what they suggest and solicited feedback about what we’ve done together. I know what the most successful students do and I willingly share what I know.

I also know, because I’ve asked, what each student’s goals are. We have a “how far should we push?” conversation every now and then, and sometimes the answer changes. My students are honest with me because I demand it of them, because I am honest about my concerns and what I understand about who they are and what they want.

My students have a toolbox and I have one, too. The trick is figuring out what they do that works and what I can supplement. And yes, there are standard tips and tricks. There are ways that I, the teacher, know will work better. Sometimes it’s fine to let students play around and figure it out. Other times, however, it’s my responsibility to tell them to do it this way for this reason. It depends on the stakes, the goal, and the reason behind the learning.

And when something goes wrong the conversation begins with, “What did you do to prepare this time?” and leads to, “What can you do differently next time?” while addressing concerns, areas help is needed, and what else is going on in students’ lives. This matters.


So this is what I know. This is what I do. These are the elements of good teaching that have become clearer to me over time. There is much to be said for what happens accidentally, organically, or unpredictably with young people, but it’s vital to consider what happens when we plan and act with intent. I owe that to my students and this is what I aim to give, every single day.

Words for Students About College

My grade 12 students are applying to college and for the most part, they’re miserable about it. They’re worried about grades and transcripts, letters of recommendation and application essays. They’re worried about class assessment tasks, standardized tests, final exams.

And no matter how often I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter, I understand that to them, it does. When I was 17, applying to college was the most stressful and seemingly important thing I’d ever done, too. I do empathize with my students. Applying to college is the most stressful thing most of them have ever done, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I’ve been telling my students to consider the following pieces of advice based on what I know now, looking back over 11 years:

  1. Put yourself in a place you’d like to live. Think about what you want around you, the community you’d like to call home, and the access that place provides for whatever matters to you.
  2. Study something that provides you with options. You can always go back to school, continue your education, and switch tracks entirely. The more options you have, the easier it is to change your mind and do something else.
  3. Consider your passions and the best ways to find fulfillment – and then consider what you need to be able to do that. Financial security? Free time? A level of autonomy? We encourage students to follow their passions, but I’d argue that it’s more important to set yourself up to be able to do that in the long run.
  4. Remember that formal education is an option, not a requirement. It’s a choice. Take a gap year. Get a job. Go somewhere new. And then decide whether formal education is the best way to set yourself up to live a good life. Higher education isn’t going away.
  5. Figure out how you learn best. Figure out what you need to sustain yourself in an environment that drives you. Do you need a 9-5 job to afford to spend your weekends surfing? Do you need to live in a specific country? Do you need to be part of a think tank to have meaningful discussions?

I’m not saying these are the right questions for everyone, but I do believe they merit some thought. Higher education is the default option for the students that I teach, as well as for many students worldwide. I don’t think this is always appropriate, if for no other reason than we don’t often consider alternatives. We also don’t often consider why higher education is the default.

Asking questions is a step in a different direction, and hopefully in the right one.

A friend described his life path to me as “a bowl of spaghetti” and he’s one of the most interesting people I know. I followed a very linear path until I got scared and jumped off it; I’m a better person and educator as a result. Linearity and predictability are safe, easy, and obvious but there’s a lot more to the world than that.

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir