Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finding what works: The delicate balance between students and teachers

It wasn't too long ago that I was a student. I remember taking a class, taking the teacher as the ultimate authority, and, at the end of the class, being presented with a long survey asking me my opinions on things like "first day impressions" and "how the teacher presented information"... In more than one case, one of the following occurred:

  • I was exhausted from finals and was uninterested in filling out something else that required me to fill in small bubbles or write some sort of essay
  • I was scared. The teacher presented him/herself as the end all, be all and I knew I'd have that teacher again. What was the point of saying what didn't work if I knew that either the teacher wouldn't change or that (s)he would target students next time for their thoughts.
  • I honestly couldn't remember. Some questions on these surveys ask for students to remember things from the first day of school. I was so nervous about a new class, so excited about new material, or so attentive and concerned about the material, that I could not remember what my first impression was. 
  • I felt like I had no useful information. At one of the schools I attended, we couldn't access final grade information without logging in and either taking a final survey or signing a statement saying we weren't going to. If the class was uninteresting to me/required, I usually didn't feel like my opinions were legitimate. If the class wasn't too hard or easy, I didn't feel like I could provide anything useful. All that being said, I resented being presented with this formal survey that I had to do something with before being done with a class.
Acknowledging all of these points to myself, I decided to be different in my classroom. This has progressed over two years to become a few things. At first, I gave an end of the year survey, but I changed the questions to be more generalised and give students an opportunity to express things that they wanted to express. I got a few responses, but mostly blank papers. I changed to give a survey every month or so asking about what was working, what wasn't working, what they could change, and what I could change. I found that I got a few more responses, and of those most were very specific and helpful, but still I felt like students were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. 

At the beginning of this school year, I sat down and re-watched some videos from Education Scotland. One of the videos that I'd originally skipped was on something called a suggestion box. I took one of my daughter's shoe boxes and covered it in some nifty wrapping paper and wrote "Suggestion Box" on it. It sits on the corner of my desk closest to the students. It is something they pass every day on their way in and on their way out. Here is what I told them:

"This is a suggestion box. Instead of surveys at the end of the year, I will be using this throughout the year. Please, please, PLEASE, use it! You can write me a note, at any time, about anything, and slip it in here. No one will know but you and me. If you put your name on it, then I will write a response and give it to you next class. If you don't, it will be an anonymous suggestion. All I ask is that you be specific and make it appropriate."

I still sometimes do a quick survey of the students. I limit these to brand new activities. I usually ask students to put their heads down and raise their hands if something applies to them. This is also a quick way to see who understands something and who doesn't. Here is what I've discovered about the suggestion box:

Positives
  • Students feel like they can say what is really on their minds. More often than not, I get positive feedback about activities they loved and why they loved them
  • Students feel like they can say what they want, when they want. There isn't the pressure to respond and students are given the option not to, without making it known that they don't want to. 
  • Students feel like their privacy is being respected. Instead of being handed a paper and being forced to hand it back in, students can write something down on a sheet of notebook paper, or a sticky note, etc. and slip it in privately, on their way out or in to class. 99% of the time no one notices, not even me.
  • students appreciate being responded to, when they write their name down. At first, students were surprised that I'd actually responded to them. I got lots of "Oh! I didn't know you'd actually do it! Thanks!" Many times, my responses gives them an opportunity to ask a question they'd been scared to ask or gives them a reason to ask to talk to me about something. This helps both of us, teacher and student, make class better.
Negatives
  • Some students take advantage of the "anonymous" option in a unhelpful way. Every once in a while, I get a "today sucked" message. These kinds of messages don't work, because it doesn't tell me what needs to change. 
  • Students forget the box is there. I give a reminder about twice through the semester. Many students say things like "oh ya...." and then the suggestions start pouring in again. 
  • I may forget to check and miss someone's note... but the students will never forget to "yell" at me the next day :)
All in all,  I think it is a good way to go about it. It takes the pressure off of them in many ways and it gives them some control. It also establishes a balance between me and my students. I am the teacher and I have the ultimate control, but it is based on what they give me. They know I'm listening to what they have to say and that I will always take their suggestions seriously, even if I end up not following it. I always offer to provide explanations for why we do what we do. Students appreciate that. Using the suggestion box has been a great aid in my classroom, mostly in the way that it has changed my relationship with my students.

Happy Weekend!