Students as Coaches
One High School's Experiment in Using Students' Perceptions to Help Teachers Improve Instruction
Why was I, a 17-year-old, non-French-speaking high school junior, sitting in a third-year French classroom filling out a “classroom observation report”? Who would consider me qualified to be doing teacher observations? Yet there I was, using a student-developed observation tool that helped me notice when students were having trouble and, just as important, when the teacher picked up on the problem and found a remedy for it.
The classroom-observation report came out of a unique high school club called Best Practices, founded in the fall of 2004 by 10 students at Lexington High School, in Lexington, Mass. We knew that students were already talking about education, in the hallways and at lunch. Student chatter isn’t always about petty issues like a big assignment or a personal grudge. The majority of the talk is negative, but students also can pinpoint exactly what is wrong with a particular teaching method within minutes of leaving the classroom. Likewise, there are plenty of students who know what is working for them, and they can explain exactly why.
Where can students go with such constructive criticism? Maybe to a friend, a parent, or possibly to a supportive teacher who asks for students’ advice. But there was no formal place for students to contribute to conversations about improving teaching and learning at our school. So with the help of one of those “supportive teachers” as our adviser, we created the Best Practices Club at Lexington High. Of course, there were other small details too, like approval by the principal, agreement from the department heads, and a sign-off from the president of the teachers’ union. We were very lucky that they all supported us.
The Best Practices Club was born, and it was going to become a place to hear students’ opinions on education and give those opinions the respect they deserve. By keeping our message positive, highlighting what was working rather than what was not, we hoped that teachers and administrators would respect, listen to, and learn from what we hoped to do.
We started by focusing on what is working in individual classrooms across campus. It took us a few months to create an observation protocol that was both practical and comprehensive enough, and to convince enough teachers to let us test it in their classrooms. We finally produced a three-page tool reflecting what is important to us, as students, in a classroom. We focused on four major areas: student understanding, student’s role, teacher’s role, and the atmosphere of the classroom. Within those areas, we zoomed in on topics like the level of student participation, the methods the teacher uses to check in with students, and the way the teacher demonstrates respect toward the students.
Thanks to some brave pioneers, we were able to observe eight teachers (some of them several times). We used what we found in those classrooms as a springboard for our school’s first student-teacher discussion on best teaching methods. The meeting was with seven teachers and focused on sharing best practices and improving our observation tool. We had asked the teachers to bring a list of their own best practices. They spent an hour and a half enthusiastically sharing methods with each other as we students listened with astonishment to all the thought that went into making an excellent class so excellent. By the end of the meeting, we students hadn’t said much about what we had been doing, but the teachers were thrilled and grateful to us for initiating and facilitating this kind of sharing among teachers. One teacher described this student-led experience as the “best thing to ever happen at Lexington High School.”
The success of the smaller meeting led us to push for a facultywide meeting before the end of the school year. Our principal, in his very first year at the school, welcomed the club and approved its request. Then we had a month to plan—and to worry. We wanted the workshop to publicize what Best Practices had been doing and what we wanted to accomplish the following year, but we also wanted to encourage teachers to share their best practices with each other. Several apprehensive questions floated around in our heads: Would teachers listen to us? Would they respect what we were doing? Would they participate? How well would we facilitate the discussion? Would we command their respect?
After several drafts of the outline for the workshop, and a meeting for each draft, we were ready. Soon, 150 faculty members would hear about best practices in classrooms throughout the school, but would they be open to discussing them or sharing their own? Would they try to implement any new practices? What impact could this one meeting have?
Fast-forward to 3:05 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in mid-May: One student welcomed approximately two dozen teachers into a classroom, while another shuffled papers nervously in the front of the room. This was the culmination of a year’s work, and we wanted to make the best of our limited time with the entire faculty. Just a few minutes earlier, all 150 teachers had been seated in the lecture hall where faculty meetings are usually held, listening first to the principal, and then me, giving a joint introduction to the workshop. Then they were ushered into five different classrooms, where two student facilitators stood ready to lead the discussion for the remaining time.
At the beginning of my small-group session, the outlook seemed bleak. The opening explanation was met with blank stares and just a few nods of understanding. Fifteen minutes later, though, the atmosphere had changed. Teachers were excitedly sharing methods that work well in their classrooms. The group came back together, and all the teachers exchanged ideas and discussed the thinking behind methods they shared.
Although a few teachers expressed mild irritation at the idea of students’ presuming to lead teachers in a discussion of best practices, later evaluations showed that the vast majority responded positively to our efforts. One teacher wrote, “[I learned] excellent strategies in engaging students,” and another said, “I like the way the personal connection of students and teachers kept being brought up. It’s nice to remember how important that is.” A common theme, expressed by another teacher, was that this had been a “rare opportunity to share with peers.” Faculty members seemed especially to enjoy working with teachers of different subjects, saying that they felt it “was great to find out what other departments are doing.”
Nearly 50 percent of the faculty members indicated after the workshop that they would be willing to have students come into their classrooms to observe their teaching. About the same number also were interested in participating in smaller student-faculty meetings. This meant that, thanks to this one meeting, 75 of 150 teachers were expressing a strong interest in collaborating with students on how to create a better learning environment.
The greatest value of Best Practices may be perceptual: When teachers come to meetings facilitated by students, they realize that, yes, these particular students may be unusual, but every day there are over a hundred informal observers in their classrooms. Every day, students are spending time in classrooms, either learning or not learning. And every day, changes can be made to improve the learning community in every class.
Best Practices is working to make sure more of that classroom time is spent with teachers using “best practices” that will benefit all students. Recently, we’ve begun to share our ideas with educators from across the country. There are two major themes in their responses. First, the idea of a student voice in professional development is unprecedented, but very important. Second, it could be very relevant to their own efforts to improve teaching and learning at their schools. As those educators noticed, the Best Practices Club is about much more than one suburban high school’s experiment in student-led professional development. The idea behind Best Practices–that students have plenty to contribute to improving the teaching and learning environment at their school–is just as relevant in urban and rural schools.
I would love for more students, teachers, and administrators to find their own way to incorporate a Best Practices-type club into their schools. Here are some things that can be done immediately:
• Create a joint faculty-student panel on improving teaching and learning at your school.
• Use our observation tool or create your own for students to gather information about best practices.
• Find opportunities for students and teachers to discuss how to improve the learning community at your school.
Just beginning the process of implementing any of the above starts the discussion around methods that are working in your school. And discussion is vital to promoting real change.
Back to that third-year French class: I was a trained observer there, and was considered so by the teacher and her students. The week before, I had observed the teacher working with students on the subjunctive tense. Now, I was watching closely to see if the students could use what they had learned. Sure enough, every student was called on to communicate to the class an original sentence with the new tense. This kind of active participation by students, and the teacher’s respectful way of working with a student struggling with the new concept, would definitely be at the heart of my analysis of this class. But how could I frame these best practices in a way that a science teacher could understand and use in her classroom?
Thanks to the Best Practices Club, I have a place to take that question, and there are students and teachers who are willing to think about it with me. The learning process continues ...
Vol. 25, Issue 22, Pages 31-32Published in Print: February 8, 2006, as To Build a Nation of Readers