How 1-on-1 Time With Students Made Me a Better Teacher

Personalized Learning

How 1-on-1 Time With Students Made Me a Better Teacher

By Heather Stinnett     Sep 18, 2018

How 1-on-1 Time With Students Made Me a Better Teacher

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

When it happened to us, it was something to dread. Being summoned to speak with a teacher one-on-one usually meant we were in serious trouble, lagging far behind or that something terrible had happened.

I carried this perception with me during my first year of teaching. But I didn’t want my students to fear having conversations with me. I was determined to flip their ideas about “talking to the teacher.”

A few years later, I met a student, Tommy, who helped me learn the value of one-to-one meetings. The relationship we developed through our time together has influenced my practice to this day.

Tommy never completed his homework. He was a sweet boy who seemed to love school, but I couldn’t get him to catch up on his work no matter how much I reminded him. I started to meet with Tommy a few times per week during the school day for 15 minutes while students worked on math problems. We focused on his homework, and we’d talk about other things too.

I learned a lot about his life outside of school: He looked after some of the neighborhood kids after school, while their parents and his single mom were working second or third jobs. He absolutely loved cats and dogs, though he didn’t have pets at home. He could do his homework if he had time or a family member at home in the evenings to help out; but he didn’t. We talked about movies, music and food.

As we worked on his assignments and got to know each other better, it was clear that Tommy felt supported, and as a result, his confidence and his scores went up. As I started to understand what motivated him, our interactions took on a new level of depth and I became a more effective teacher for him. Learning went from something intimidating that he had to do alone while I stood in front of the class, to a more relaxed, student-centered collaboration.

That year the rest of the class noticed the connection Tommy and I were developing and the fun we were having in our meetings as we worked. One of his classmates, Emily, approached me after one of my sessions with Tommy and asked to have her own regular meeting time with me.

I was perplexed—Emily didn’t need help. She had support at home and did her homework every night. I asked her why she wanted to meet and she said, “So I can learn even more.” I didn’t have time to meet with every student regularly, so I declined. Emily always put a lot of pressure on herself to achieve great things; she’d be fine, I told myself. But she persisted.

Emily and I started to have quick informal meetings together. We reviewed her assignments, and she pushed herself further than ever. We talked about friendships, books and classwork. Our meetings surfaced how Emily’s own high expectations for herself caused a significant amount of anxiety. She seemed so “together” in class—I had no idea she was struggling with this. We talked through strategies for diffusing her anxiety, and in time she began to use them. Soon, I was flooded with requests to meet one-on-one. That year, I learned just how much students crave a more personal connection with their teacher.

Learning is a very personal and emotional process. Students wrestle with what they’re learning, the relationships they’re developing, and the stresses of school and life. All students need to develop a strong personal connection in the classroom to do their best. Although time was tight (as it always is in schools), I discovered that to be an effective teacher I had to meet with my students one-on-one as regularly as possible—I couldn’t afford not to. I kept working to squeeze in one-on-one times with my students for 15 minutes each, every two to three weeks (two students per day).

I found time while students worked on independent work after lessons, and during the time I’d usually spend grading papers. I held a meetings after dismissal for the students who attended our after-school program. I met with students during bell-ringer time in the mornings or whenever I could fit it in. I kept a list on my desk of who I’d met with in each cycle and who I hadn’t.

Before long I stopped seeing my class as a group and started seeing them as individuals in full focus. Behavior improved, scores went up and I believe we were all happier. The result was a culture of trust that laid the foundation for student growth in a number of areas.

  • The culture of our classroom changed. I felt more connected to the students, they felt more connected to me and I was better able to help them connect with each other.
  • I was able to pinpoint which students needed specific help in academic areas, and could point them to other students who could help them out. (Instant, eager tutors!)
  • This time helped students to share their desires for their learning experience, and I designed classroom systems and projects to reflect those desires.

This is my 10th year in the classroom and I’ve kept up with the one-on-one meetings. In fact, I’ve taken them to a new level. I’m now lead advisor to 18 students ranging from eight- to ten-years-old at Khan Lab School, a small independent school in Silicon Valley. Keeping students at the center of the learning experience is core to our mission.

In our school model, one of the ways we do this is by holding weekly one-on-ones. I meet with each of my students every week for 45 minutes. During this time, I review their academic work in depth and give support and extra practice where needed. I coach them on work habits, and we talk about a variety of issues related to their social-emotional health. We start and end every meeting with encouragement and a personal greeting like a high five or fist bump.

I’ve found over the years that these meetings are meaningful for all students, especially for those with learning differences, behavior challenges or problems at home. When I know my students as people, I can understand what they need and can work more effectively to meet their needs.

Intentionally making strong connections with every student creates a learning atmosphere that’s built on empathy and understanding. It’s a humanizing practice, which has helped me to make real connections. Ask anyone to describe their favorite teacher, and inevitably they’ll share a story about a time they truly felt seen, heard or understood by one. That should tell us something. Our students have a lot to say, especially when we make the time to listen.

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