Know your students

There aren’t many things that everyone can agree on about our education system. Everything from how schools should be funded to student welfare, pro- or anti-NAPLAN and even the whole purpose of receiving an education at all are prime topics for disagreement and contention. Yet, there is at least one thing, in my experience, that everyone can agree on: the teachers you have can make a profound impact on your experience of school and on the course of your life.

I have written previously about the impact that some of my teachers had on me during a critical and traumatic period. Teachers who inspired me and genuinely did change the course of my life. You see, my brother and I were disadvantaged students. We grew up in a single-parent family and attended the local public high school.

When our mother passed away suddenly, these teachers understood us and were able to use this knowledge to support us to stay in school and achieve. How? Because they had taken the time to get to know us – on both an individual and personal level. Now, a teacher myself, I believe that it is the single most important thing that we as teachers can do.

Why is this the most important thing, you ask? Surely, as a teacher, I should be arguing that the learning and achievement of my students is the most important aspect of my work. Perhaps, but the fact is that a student who does not feel safe and connected to their teacher or school will not be happy and will not have a positive experience in education. In short, students won’t learn or achieve if I, as their teacher, don’t understand what they need and what makes them tick as people.

Both teachers and non-teachers alike can usually tell if a student is disengaged from learning. The student can show a whole variety of different behaviours, some of them obvious, some subtle, some of them entertaining and some deeply concerning or even dangerous. Everyone can picture the student with their head on the desk, the class clown or the student becoming enraged and flipping furniture (all of which have certainly occurred in my classroom more than once).

For a teacher though, it is their job to see past these behaviours, to the person and needs underneath. All behaviour occurs for a reason; it serves a function. And it is the teacher’s job to find a way to understand that function and help the student to engage again.

This is no simple task. A student who is not engaging with school could be doing so for any number of reasons. They could be dealing with bullying, either at school or online. They could be years behind expected level in reading and numeracy and covering their shame and embarrassment. They could be dealing with domestic violence or substance abuse in their home or community. They could have come to school without breakfast and with no food for their day, having spent the morning getting their younger siblings up and ready for school.

In most cases, the student themselves may not even be aware of what is driving their behaviour. Further, many of those possible reasons, which are by no means exhaustive, will be invisible to a teacher unless they make the effort to find out.

Teachers can be dragged into the trap of focusing on what the student is doing, rather than why they are doing it. Truly great teachers manage the what in the moment, while always thinking about and working on the why. This is hard. As a beginning teacher, it’s almost impossible in some situations. It requires an extraordinary level of commitment, compassion and effort on the part of a teacher. But, it is truly rewarding when you see how that knowledge and understanding can be turned into engagement, achievement and happiness for your students.

The stories my students tell, of their own lives and of those around them, have left me speechless many times throughout my short career. Primary-age students who everyday not only get themselves to school but also have to get their younger siblings ready for school. Students from refugee families who tell stories of the relatives who they have left behind or even lost in their journeys to Australia. Students who have lost parents, sometimes violently, far younger than any child should have to say goodbye. Students who, as children, are dealing with the grief of losing their teenage sibling or trauma from any number of sources and are still coming to school everyday and doing their best to learn.

These stories humble me. The simple courage many of these students show simply to make it to school, let alone engage in learning, is staggering. Their resilience is a reminder of what we can all overcome. They remind me of how fortunate, despite my own challenges, I am to have received the support and understanding that I did from my teachers. They remind me of why I joined Teach For Australia and how important it is for our schools to be filled with passionate, caring and committed teachers. They remind me of why teachers matter and they inspire me to be the absolute best teacher that I could possibly be. They deserve nothing less.

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