As I began this school year, I wanted to make a concerted effort to honor my students and to have a student-centered classroom. As a first step, I asked my students what kind of classroom they would like and what words they wanted to use to describe our classroom. I thought I was off to a great start. Next, I started talking about respect because, if students can wrap their minds around respect and live lives of respect, then classroom problems will practically disappear. I don’t regret any of those decisions, but I realized that I had forgotten something important. Actually, I had forgotten it for the 14 years of my teaching career. (Thanks to Pernille Ripp and her new book, Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students for helping me realize my error.)
No classroom can truly be student centered unless the students feel respected. In my entire teaching career, I had never asked a student what would make him/her feel respected. Once I realized this, I changed my plans for the next day and had a classroom discussion with each of my classes asking them to tell me what it would look like, feel like, and sound like in a classroom where the students were respected. My students (7th graders) took this discussion very seriously. No one suggested that they would feel respected by playing outside every day or by having ice cream on a daily basis. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our conversations, but I wasn’t surprised when it took the students a few minutes to start responding. After all, I was probably the first teacher to ever pose that question to them. They probably questioned my sincerity, also. When they finally began speaking, I wrote their responses down to help me remember what they said, and to help show my sincerity.
What I heard loud and clear from all 5 classes was that each student wanted someone to look them in the eyes when they were talking. This scares me a little as a teacher, because I’ve gotten good at listening to a student while monitoring the classroom, but that’s not what students want. They want my full attention. Otherwise, they don’t feel valued. I’m not sure how this is going to develop through the year, but I know I’ve got to try because my students deserve to feel respected.
They also wanted to know that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or belittled in the classroom. They felt that there would be times when they’d get the wrong answers or need something repeated. Respect, in their eyes, would be my responding with kindness instead of statements like, “If you had been listening, you’d know what to do with your paper.” Statements like that may seem justified, and even if they are, they don’t inspire responsibility in the students.
Another request from my students was my honoring their opinions. They realize that many times the teacher has to dictate how the classroom is going to run, but they also know that there are times when the teacher can be flexible. It is during these times that they want their opinions to be heard, valued, and acted upon.
Isn’t this what we want as adults as well? We want people to show us that we matter by looking at us and really seeing us. We want to live free from the fear of being singled out, embarrassed, or belittled. And we want people to listen to our opinions, taking them into consideration whenever appropriate.
This year, let’s respect our students as they deserve. Let’s make them the center of our classrooms, and let’s give respect before demanding that students show respect to us just because of our position as teacher.
(If you want more information about crafting a student-centered classroom, I encourage you to read the book I mentioned above, Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students by Pernille Ripp. You could also check out her blog at http://pernillesripp.com/)