Watching Students Learn
As I scatter the puzzle pieces on the teaching table in front of my fourth and fifth graders, I expect them to dive right in, strategy in mind, and finish by the end of the hour. Instead, most just stare, as though a puzzle is a foreign object, and for many I soon realize, it is. Those with some experience approach first, while the others observe. By the end of half an hour, all hands are on deck and, working together, they solve the puzzle by the end of the period.
I’ve never learned more about the way my students think than I did while observing them put this puzzle together. Two years later, I find myself watching with the same fascination as my infant daughter begins to explore the world around her, with no prior notions about how anything works, no system or rules, just curious hands and a mind to match.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I’ve truly always found students to be puzzles. Some have all the pieces and know exactly how to place them, while others have either misplaced a few or had theirs depreciated or taken away. It’s my job as a teacher and specialist in learning disabilities to help these students relocate and utilize their missing pieces, and then determine what strategies helped the most. The only way I can effectively do my job is through observation and connection. I must watch my students read, write, grapple with math problems, and interact with others. To truly help students learn and grow, I have to know them, understand them for where and who they are, and ensure that they trust in me.
The Internet is bursting with research illustrating the value of connecting with students and strategies for building and sustaining those connections. Connection nurtures success on all levels, from classroom management to grades, but how does connection help a tutor?
At the most recent W.O.R.D. Ink Seasonal Collaborative, our team delved into our role as tutors and, more importantly, our role as coaches and mentors. What does it mean to be in these concurrent roles and what is expected of us? We continually circled back to the power of connecting with students. We are there for students who have their puzzle pieces intact, who have excelled in the education system and are ready to move even further. Likewise, we are there for those whose puzzle pieces are missing, undervalued, or overlooked. For these students, it’s essential that we recognize and voice their potential, and nurture their self-confidence by showing them, “You can be successful. We will find a way that works for you.”
Meanwhile, progress is felt at a reciprocal level by the tutor, as well. Certainly, the best part of all about mentoring is the pride and fulfillment derived from watching our students learn, grow, and achieve their goals. But, “Relating [also] makes us smarter,” says writer, researcher, and educator, Annie Murphy Paul in her popular blog, The Brilliant Report.
“Learning, and thinking are deeply social activities. Our minds often work best in interaction with other people’s minds.” Paul then goes on to explain that, “there are particular kinds of relationships that are especially good at evoking our intelligence. One is […] the teacher-student relationship.”
In other words, we teach in order to learn.
Whatever role you find yourself working in with children or adolescents, you are in some capacity their mentor as well. When working with students who struggle with academics, social interactions, or low self-esteem, it’s imperative that we meet them in their corner and help them see learning as both attainable and a process they are worthy of meeting in their own special way.
The more a student trusts and respects you, the more willing they are to cooperate and put forth their best effort, which in turn fuels your success as a mentor and their success as a learner.
How Do You Connect to Students?
Here are some simple but highly effective ways to start connecting:
- Talk with students (not at them), and spend an equal amount of time listening. Every moment of interaction large and small counts towards the overall puzzle, especially if the student must learn how to regain trust (whether with you or another adult mentor) that’s been broken in the past.
- Observe all parts at work. Watch them think. Be cognizant of verbal and nonverbal cues, body movement, tone of voice, and level of enthusiasm. Likewise, monitor your own cues and vibes as well.
- Believe in your heart that the student is not inherently the “problem,” but that he or she needs your support in finding strategies and solutions that lead to long-lasting achievement. Then, be fair and reliable in regularly guiding that student to success.
Check out this great piece from Edutopia for more ideas: In Teachers We Trust: Can Kids Count On You?
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