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Teaching Opinion

What Important Lessons Have You Learned From Your Students?

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 13, 2021 14 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the most important lessons you have learned from your students?

In Part One, Kyle Lawrence, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Blanca Huertas, and Denise Fawcett Facey share their experiences.

Today, Naomi Bailey, Donna L. Shrum, Crystal Watson, and Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., contribute answers.

‘Invest in Me’

Naomi Bailey (@_naomibailey_) has been teaching and learning for more than 25 years in a wide variety of capacities. She serves National Louis University (Chicago) as adjunct faculty supporting teachers in their ESL/bilingual degree-focused work, supervises field work for pre- and in-service teachers (ESL/BIL/EC). She is also a dual-language SPED teacher at the Glenview34 school district, which serves students in P-8:

Reflecting on my career, I see many lessons learned from students have been explicitly taught by them or implicitly learned as a direct result of engagement and interactions. These incredible humans teach invaluable lessons by simply “being.” The age of students is insignificant to my professional learning. All students teach. These teachings have impacted me and manifested themselves in my practice.

  • “Invest in me, and I’ll invest in you.” Investment needs to be on the individual level, not the collective level. Who are your students? What do they like to do? Who do they consider family? What languages do they know? How are life events recognized? When we lift students up by getting to know them, they lift us up by engaging in learning experiences. Whenever I have taken the time to open my heart to my students, they have opened their minds for me.
  • “Please take time to understand my history, my identity, and my family as they shape my relationship to education and learning.” We cannot profess to know what “a day in the life” of our students looks like. We are not them, and their journey is specific to their context. The well-being of students mirrors the well-being of their familial context. We must understand how our position as educators is juxtaposed to the lived experiences of students we serve.
  • “I need to be represented in what you teach.” Students need to see themselves in our teaching. This needs to be present in activities, resources, materials, and our curriculum. Without this, we rob students of ways to make personal connections to content and context.
  • “I am not a test score; I am a person.” We need to think about language we use to discuss students and their learning. Students are not “low.” Students are not “disadvantaged.” All students have strengths, and all students have areas of growth. When we label students, they learn to live their label rather than sharing the knowledge that can be tapped. Language matters.
  • “Teach about things I am interested in, and I will always be engaged.” While working with students in Reggio and inquiry-based teaching and learning, I learned how all content areas can be embedded in topics of interest. Our creativity needs to expand as we find ways to make connections in the learning experiences we design. Greater interest equals greater engagement, greater engagement equals more significant learning gains.
  • “Teach me the way I learn, not the way you teach.” When working with student-teachers, I have them create a learning profile of themselves using a Multiple Intelligence questionnaire. Next, they create a learning profile of a student they might consider “challenging.” Then, we compare the profiles. One of the greatest take-aways is that we often teach in the way that we learn best, not in the way our students learn best. If we shift our teaching to target the ways in which students learn, not only do we serve the learning needs of students, the positive academic outcomes are also evident.
  • “I don’t always need to be in the green zone to learn.” There is so much focus on Zones of Regulation (Kyupers, 2011) and how they correspond to student learning by creating the “right” space and place for optimal learning. When thinking about this framework, I can’t help but think about the ways it works against students for arriving as they are. I have always said my teaching begins with what students bring to the table, and this includes whatever zone a student is in.
  • “Praise me and be honest.” Students don’t need fluff like “great job” or “well done.” Students need guided and specific feedback that helps them know what to continue doing and what needs work.

What I am sharing is far from complete. To do justice in explaining the important lessons I have learned from my students, I would need to write a book. This list gives insight into things that get overlooked as we hustle and bustle through our daily planning and teaching. Stop, take a minute, think about it. What important lessons have you learned from your students? What do you differently with this knowledge and how can you impart it to others?


‘Many Important Lessons...’

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

I’ve been blessed to teach students of all ages for about 30 years, and there have been many important lessons from my students. Some that especially have stayed with me are . . .

From Timmy, who always stopped to talk to me on bus duty when he was in 2nd grade. He wasn’t in my class, but other teachers told me about the fighting in his home and his growing heartbreak and anger. For months, he told me he was getting me the best Christmas present I’d ever receive. He was so excited when I unwrapped a tiny little dresser from a dollhouse with a square of metallic paper for the mirror. “It has a real mirror so you can see yourself!” he pointed out joyfully. Every time I see it on my bookshelf, I remember the most precious gifts are given with love.

From Eric, the junior who did a research paper in the pre-computer days, copying word for word from the Encyclopedia Britannica. When I said I didn’t think the report was his writing, he drawled, “Why, I’d think you’d know my handwriting by now. Yep, that’s mine.” Thank you for showing me early in my teaching career that I can think I clearly explained how to do something, but my directions can still be open to wide interpretation if I’m not careful.

From Shane, who rarely spoke, was grade levels behind, and was finally forced into our after-school program to work another hour with me after other students had gone home. One day, when I told him to try harder, he finally exploded and told me of having no bedroom, sleeping on the couch after everyone else in his house had vacated the living room well after midnight, and knowing he and his brother had different fathers, although he wasn’t supposed to. He ended by letting me know how sick he was of teacher after teacher telling him to try harder when he was trying as hard as he possibly could, and it wasn’t making any difference. You taught me that I’m often only seeing the tip of the iceberg when a student struggles and to drop the arrogant words, “Try harder,” when addressing a student who is already trying as hard as he can.

From Amanda, the high school senior who alarmed me when she wrote a poem about her desire to be with Jesus—to be with him now. In fact, she’d do anything to be with him now. Conscious of my duty as a mandated reporter, I carefully broached the question of her possibly being suicidal. She snorted and said, “Not Jesus—Haysus. He’s my boyfriend in jail.” Thank you for reminding me that some words have two pronunciations.

From Christine, who was the only girl to play on the high school football team, wrote poetry, and burned her way through the curriculum with straight A’s while ignoring classmates who often tried to tear her down or detour her. You showed me what it was like to be confident in yourself, to keep on keepin’ on, and how to ignore all the negative voices around you and decide what was right for you.


‘Will You Listen?’

Crystal Watson is a mathematics educator located in Cincinnati. Her work is centered on providing space for students to be partners in the learning experience. Student voice is paramount.

Student partners (most call them “students”) know what works for them, they want to tell you, and they want you to respond with action. Let’s do the math. Our student partners sit in front of teachers, on average, 1,000 waking hours in school each year. That is about 1/6th of the waking hours in a year. Much of that time is spent observing and listening to teachers, learning about content, and either wishing for more time in the space or for time to speed up so they can escape. Knowing that students observe us much more than any administrator ever could, I question why student partners are not the first stakeholders we engage when we want to improve our practice?

Student partners bring so many innovative ideas into the classroom space that are often discounted because of our assumptions that we know what is best. Not only is this light years from the truth, but it also ensures student partners will be passive participants instead of engaged contributors. I have learned that student partners can communicate, when given the space, their needs, and what works in meeting those needs. Most importantly, they are waiting to have their opinions considered and acknowledged through change in practice.

Feedback Fridays, End of Unit Surveys, Quarterly Conferences

It was our first feedback Friday of the year, and I asked students to provide for me the best learning experiences and worst learning experiences in mathematics. As a follow-up, I asked them to tell me all of the strategies that made those experiences great and which made them undesirable. The amount of feedback I received helped me plan the rest of my year. We completed a plus/delta activity using Post-it notes.


Image by Crystal Watson

Some of the most common strategies that lend to great learning experiences in mathematics were:

  • Teacher cares about me
  • Teacher helps clarify work/directions
  • I am given multiple ways to practice
  • I am given time to ask questions
  • I get to ask a partner/group
  • I learn by doing projects
  • No homework

Some of the most common strategies that cause undesirable learning experiences in mathematics were:

  • Teacher ignoring me
  • Teacher does not give directions
  • Too many tests
  • I can’t ask questions or work with a partner
  • Teacher talks too much, and we don’t practice
  • Homework

Another pivotal time to gather feedback from student partners is after they have finished a unit of study. As we complete a unit, we take a survey and discuss the results together before moving on to our next unit of study. Here is a sample of some questions included in the end of unit survey:

  • What did you learn that you were not asked to show on the test?
  • What are the best strategies used for this unit to help you learn?
  • What are the strategies that were not helpful in helping you learn during this unit?
  • If Mrs. Watson could change 1-3 things about math class to help support you, what would it be?

Asking student partners the questions is the first step. The most important and most impactful is how you implement changes based on the data and communicate that you listened and changed as a result of their feedback.

While most of the time spent gathering student-partner voice data has been utilizing a whole-group space, there is a need for individual conferences to gain perspective from students through verbal communication. I assign two student partners per class to be my ears for the quarter. They are asked to get feedback from their peers about how they feel, how they learn, and what they would suggest in our classroom. I then set up conferences with those assigned to debrief with them on a quarterly basis. Lastly, I implement changes and communicate back to the group.

I learn so much from those I get to teach, but I have learned, every year, that students want to be partners in the classroom. They want to be heard and revered as knowledgeable—especially about their own needs.

Will you give them space? Will you listen? Most importantly, will you take action?


‘Students Have Many Stressors’

Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., has taught at the elementary and middle school levels. She has written Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How Do I Get Organized and Work Smarter (ASCD, 2014):

I have learned many lessons from my students over the years. A few of them are below.

Give specific feedback to students.

When we pay compliments to students, it is important to be specific. “You completed 8 out of 10 problems on that paper.” “You arrived at school on time today.” “You made 90% on the test.”

I had struggled with how to motivate a student who would sit at her desk and not do anything. She would just stare into space. I tried having her stay after school to complete her work to not much avail. In a moment of frustration, I said, “You are really a good student.” This was a global statement, and she knew she was not. At that moment, she took her arm and swiped it across her desk, sending her papers, pencil, and book to the floor. She just stared at me as if to say, “You are wrong, and I just proved it! I am not a good student!”

I later learned about Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. My statement that she was a good student had created dissonance in her. As a result, she had to prove that her self-concept was correct and my assessment of her was incorrect.

Know when to use an approachable voice and when to use a credible voice.

Our students teach us how to talk by how they behave when we use different voices. Michael Grinder (2018) identified two types of voices: approachable and credible. When we use an approachable voice, our chin goes up and down, and our palms are facing up. This is the friendly voice. People speak to young children with extremely approachable voices. Women tend to be more inclined to speak in an approachable voice. Flight attendants use approachable voices to welcome us onto the plane.

When people use credible voices, their chin goes down at the end of a sentence. In addition, the palms tend to be facing down. When we speak in a credible voice, people believe we know what we are talking about. Students are more likely to do what we are asking them to do when we use a credible voice. Airline pilots communicate with us in a credible voice.

We can determine which voice to use by the way our students react when we use the different voices. In the morning, we might be able to get our students’ attention with an approachable voice. On the other hand, we may need to use a credible voice later in the day or when holidays are approaching. The key is to be breathing while using both voices or else we could come across as either pleading with the approachable voice or angry with the credible voice. It would be preferable to get our students’ attention by using the approachable voice. If the approachable voice is not working, we can move into using more of a credible voice. Our students will let us know which voice would be beneficial for us to use. All we need to do is watch them.

Realize that students have many stressors in their lives, and they are doing the best they can.

We cannot even imagine all of the stressors our students have in their lives. They may not have a home or even a bed to call their own. Their caregivers may not be present, and if they are, they may be taking addictive substances. Our students may not have any books available, and they may come to school hungry. In addition, they may suffer from various types of abuse. Even if we think our students are living in good situations, we have no idea what goes on there. The following quote, attributed to Plato, comes to mind: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Grinder, M. (2018). ENVoY: Your personal guide to classroom management (16th ed.). Michael Grinder & Associates.


Thanks to Naomi, Donna, Crystal, and Jenny for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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