Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Relationships and the Numbers that Really Matter

My podcast consumption is at an all-time high. Recently, I listened to The Hidden Brain's episode entitled "Students and Teachers." While the content wasn't necessarily new information, the episode was filled with facts and data that we often overlook or push to the back burner. The questions were posed: How do we close the achievement gap? How do we improve test scores, grades, and academic achievement as a whole? And most significantly- what truly matters in improving the educational experience of our students?

Data. It's a dreaded word, especially in the humanities fields, but it is an important one. I get it - data is often associated with frustration, lack of relevance, and the time taken away from instruction and building relationships with our students. (Side note: I am the daughter of a math teacher turned principal who understands data better than anyone I know. What she sees in numbers is unparalleled by anyone I know, and it has made her very successful at her job. My dad's an economics man. He reveres socio-political news as a way to understand human beings and the world we have created. To add to my influences and the chagrin of my parents when I told them I wanted to be an English teacher, my older brother is a former math teacher (specifically stats). I grew up around math; I appreciate them. Numbers help me make sense of the world.

While I honestly have little interest in ACT testing data, other forms of data can be utilized to improve our understanding of our students. When gathered and applied correctly, data can provide us with valuable information about our students and how to best serve their needs. Localized assessments, formative reviews (which can be FUN... I personally love dancing to the Kahoot music), surveys, and parent contact can provide us with information about students' interests, past experiences, motivation, and can challenge us to consider what works in our classrooms. Qualitative data, while harder to gather and organize, is invaluable to us in our individual classrooms with our students. 

Immediately after the "d" word was mentioned, Shankar Vedantam, the host of the podcast, turned his focus toward relationships and supported this notion with more data and more science. What matters most concerning the achievement gap (which is a multi-layered and complex issue) in the classroom is how we connect to our students. When students and teachers form strong bonds, test scores improve, students are far more likely to complete high school, and overall academic achievement improves. The academic numbers then translate to future earning potential and success post-schooling. And those are the numbers that matter; those post-secondary achievement numbers are the ones that ultimately improve the lives of our students. Also, teacher performance improves with stronger student-teacher relationships, which in turn, improves the quality of students' experience. Relationships are reciprocal.

So - how do we build better relationships? What goals do I want to reflect upon, reinforce, and improve next fall? 

1. Allow myself time. 

Time is our most precious commodity. In any given classroom, curriculum maps consume and overwhelm us. The need to cover specific material does place a significant amount of pressure on us, but there are ways to carve out time. Encouraging students to write blog posts, narratives, or reflection papers can reinforce skills while allowing time for teachers and students to build relationships. Talking before and after class with each student as they walk in and out of the classroom is a fast way to personalize each relationship (even with the students who run out the door because they have to get into gym volleyball - that struggle is real at my school). 

Sometimes when the going gets tough, stop and take a minute to close the books, devices, etc. and check in. This past semester, I had a few cookie days. I brought in cookies, told my students to take a few when they walked in, sat, and chatted. Especially during busy testing times and the end of a semester crunch, taking the time to chat and eat a cookie allowed them to de-stress, connect with classmates and me, and gave us something to look forward to after completing the next major task. There's always time for a cookie. 

2. Get involved. 

Coaching, sponsoring a club, attending activities, or just being present... there are so many ways to get involved. Going to dances, showing up at games, wearing t-shirts designed by students that support various clubs, and simply opening the door before and/or after school is immensely important in showing students 1. I care. 2. I'm here. Even if they don't stop in, knowing that they can make a significant difference to my students. 

3. Leave the door open. 

Yes, physically leaving the door open to the classroom is a symbolic gesture that communicates volumes to students (although, technically - I think it's against fire codes). When possible, show or at least make it clear that the door's always open. I sit in my classroom every morning, and while it's mostly full of kids I coach, I usually end up with a few other regulars who want to use a Chromebook, need me to print something, or simply want to talk. I don't complete many academic tasks, but so much more is accomplished in terms of forming these relationships. 

4. Communicate high (yet attainable) expectations. 

Students will rise to the occasion. They will accomplish so much more when they know we believe in them. One idea that made me pause when listening to the podcast was the idea of personalizing notes. By leaving sticky notes on surveys when a researcher wanted people to complete them, he saw a rise in completed surveys and interaction with students. When feedback is personalized and direct, students will respond. Providing personalized notes and messages is time-consuming, yes, but more often than not, it is incredibly valuable in motivating and inspiring students to reach new levels of achievements (Check out the article "You've Been Doing A Fantastic Job. Just One More Thing..." from the New York Times.  

5. Contact parents. 

This part of the episode was the most convicting. In a study conducted by Harvard and Brown, researchers found that sending a weekly message to parents increased student performance. When parents hear information about their students' school experience, they are more likely to talk to their students. When people hear positive information and receive encouraging reinforcement, they are far more likely to want to continue to succeed and will even be more inclined to respond to critiques and feedback after hearing something positive. Communication is key. While I do send home emails on occasion to my lower-level students, I do not do this nearly enough with my other students. Communicating with parents and sending positive feedback is something that I must do more of and am planning on making a part of my goals for the 2016-2017 school year. After all, communication is one of the six essential skills to success! Thanks, NPR.

We've all heard the adage that relationships are a two-way street. To me, relationships between students and teachers (and parents, too) resembles a round-a-bout - slightly unnerving, a little hectic at times, containing several different directions in which to veer, and powerful when all the pieces work together. 

Works Cited

"In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs." NPR. NPR, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 05 July      2016.

Kamenetz, Anya. "How To Raise Brilliant Children, According To Science." NPR. NPR, 05 July  
     2016. Web. 05 July 2016.

Kamenetz, Anya. "Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?" NPR.      NPR, 28 May 2015. Web. 5 July 2016.

Tugend, Alina. "You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing ..." The New York Times. The
     New York Times, 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 05 July 2016.

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