Teachable Moments: How Four Educators Learned to See Their Students...

EdSurge Podcast

Teachable Moments: How Four Educators Learned to See Their Students Differently

By Sydney Johnson     Mar 12, 2019

Teachable Moments: How Four Educators Learned to See Their Students Differently

When students struggle, so do educators. That’s why this week on the EdSurge On Air podcast, we hear from four educators who remember a time when they faced difficulty with an issue or a student, but overcame that struggle to find a positive outcome.

This episode is the first of a four-part series about why teachers teach, called Teachable Moments. In this series we'll hear directly from educators who attended the EdSurge Fusion Conference last fall. They share important and sometimes challenging moments in their careers, but ultimately what brings them joy in teaching.

Listen below, or subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app like iTunes or Spotify. Highlights from the conversation below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

We start with Ellen Dorr, chief technology officer at Renton School District in Washington. Ellen previously taught eighth grade English Language Arts at Cascade Middle School for 11 years. And during that time she learned something new about a student after assigning a personal narrative. What the student wrote taught her how important it is to understand students, not simply in terms of their grades.

Ellen Dorr: A great joy and struggle I've experienced in my work is teaching eighth graders to read and write—and to love it. That is where I found a lot of connection with students. We would connect over stories and the strength we found in stories and learning other stories and really knowing our own stories.

My biggest joys really came from when I taught them writing, personal narrative in particular. So, in personal narrative, we would kind of look back on our lives and examine the things that had shaped us, and we found ways to find real strength in the experiences that we had had.

I once had a student who reflected on a time when she was eight years old, and there was a conflict in her home between adults. And rather than being removed from this conflict, she was kind of scooped up and placed in the middle of the conflict. So she found herself between two warring adults. And at 13, she looked back on that and made some decisions around who she wanted to be, what she wanted to allow into her life, and how she would conduct herself. Even though it had been a negative experience, she took something really positive and powerful from it.

I shared this story with a science teacher, I told her “just read this.” She did and started to cry. I think she hadn't realized the complexity of the little human in her care, and that helped her see her in a different way and know something else about her that gave her a different perspective on that student. And I really think that shaped their relationship going forward.

We have to know our students to really teach them. We have to really know who they are, what motivates them, their histories, their families, what they bring to us—all of those strengths and experiences if we're really able to educate them.

Ask your students questions about what motivates them, what you should know about their family, what you should know about their culture, what they're proud of, what they struggle with. If we make those part of our practices, then we are always developing those relationships with our students and really knowing them.

Next up, we'll hear from Susan Seki, a third grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Burlingame School District in California. She describes one student in particular who would get really frustrated and stressed in some classrooms situations, and how one interaction helped her see the student's perspective differently.

Susan Seki: I had a student he came in the beginning of the year. He was actually a couple of weeks late, coming in to our classroom. He came from a very challenging family life pretty much his whole life. He seemed very sweet, but I did see situations in the classroom when he got stressed out. He had a difficult time dealing with those situations.

And then one day a couple weeks into the school year, I was able to connect with him on a different level. I was out on yard duty one recess and talking to a fellow teacher, and I noticed behind me was this one particular student all by himself. But he didn't seem upset, he seemed just, you know, walking around. And so I caught his attention, and I said ‘Hi’ to him. And he came up to me and he said, “I'm a character in a game.” I said, “What do you mean you're a character in a game?” And what he ended up explaining to me was that he was being a Pac-Man-like character in a game, and he was very happily walking around and gobbling up whatever characters he was trying to get. It really touched my heart that he was so creative. He was perfectly content playing alone.

The most unexpected part of that minute of recess was when I realized I connected with him as a human being to a human being, as opposed to a teacher and a student—and the heart that was there. And I was very honored and touched that he shared that with me. He was comfortable enough, and he felt safe enough, to just share and be happy and be a kid. I know it's hard at the beginning of the school year, and you're getting to know the students, but my goal since has been to connect with each student throughout the year as a person. Then the teacher and student role becomes easier.

Next, we speak with Heather Stinnett, lead advisor and teacher at the Khan Lab School, an independent school in Mountain View California. She remembers one student who was struggling with math for an unexpected reason.

Heather Stinnett: As a teacher, we build a lot of experience in identifying areas of student need, especially in academics. At my school we actually loop with the kids [meaning teachers work with the same group of students for more than a year], so we get to spend a few years with each of them which is very exciting because you get to know them really well. And I had a student who kind of was middle of the road, she kind of skated by in her academics, was doing okay, not lagging behind and not especially advanced either. And at a certain point she began to really struggle with math. Like she just wasn't getting her work done.

She was working through the fourth grade material at the time, and so I thought, “Okay, this is getting a little more advanced, and I think she might need some tutoring.” She knew that she was falling behind, too. Her parents and I would meet and talk about it.

And one day I just sat down with her and I said, “Why don't you do your math. Do some practice on the online tool, and I'll watch what you're doing and see kind of where the concepts are breaking down for you and how I can help.” While she was sitting there working, she kept looking at the clock, she kept looking at me, she was really worried about finishing in time. I told her, “Well, I'm not really worried about the time, I can see that you're pretty worried about the time.” Every so often she would finally look at the screen, answer the question immediately, just really fast, didn't even need any help with the math and then she would look back at the clock and look back at me and say, “Okay, there's another question now, I don't know if I'm going to finish.”

So, this went on for a little while and I started to notice she could answer the questions, no problem. And I uncovered that the issue with the student was not that she didn't understand the math, it was that she was having such anxiety about being even a little bit behind that then it became just an avalanche for her of anxiety of being behind which led her to be further and further and further behind.

I had assumed that the problem was academic, especially since she hadn't had the same issue with math before. And because we made this assumption, it made it even harder for her because then we approach those conversations with, “We know that you need help, we know that you're behind, let's get you up to speed.” But saying those words made it so much worse for her—that exacerbated the problem. So, what I learned was we needed to change the way we were talking to her about this problem about her being behind and teach her some strategies to manage her anxiety rather than focusing on the wrong thing.

Sometimes students don't have the tools or the awareness to understand what they're going through, so it's up to us to really step back in those moments instead of try to attack the problem with the strategies that we might typically rely on. It's really important to keep the whole picture in mind.

We end with Ling Lam, an educational technology specialist at Monticello Academy in Santa Clara California. She decided to become a teacher after working for a non-profit that helps grieving youth. The teens there told her that she listens well, and that's what they want from their teacher. So Lam took the compassion she learned as a grief counselor into the classroom as a teacher.

Ling Lam: All the teachers at my school also have to be an advisor for their students. So, one of the students came and talked to me after school, he mainly just wanted to talk about his grade because it was dropping and he's an only child at home, so parents are always on him about grades. So he asked me, “What can I do with my grade?” He used to be an A student, and I began to notice that he was no longer making up his work, and he didn't ask me questions anymore.

So, I sat him down and I asked him, “How are you? What's going on?” And then he burst into tears right in front of me. So, we just talked. He told me there was a lot going on at home. He said: “There's a lot of pressure. I'm the only child. No one ever asks me if I'm happy. You're the first one.”

Even though sometimes we know the student’s background or that they are struggling, we don't want to just say it upfront. So I always try to approach it like an observation. So say, “I notice that you're really into doing this, or I notice that you don't really like to talk much. I notice that you're different compared to your peers.” And sometimes I like just being vulnerable and share with them and say “You know what, I never thought that I would become a teacher. And, you know what, I'm pretty good at this.”

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