A group of former students from our Chicago public neighborhood high school visited our school today. They spoke on a panel about their college experiences to help this year's seniors gain insights into what happens after graduation. While I did not attend the panel, I did talk with a few of the students afterwards one-on-one.
One of my first classes at this Southwest side school was AP English Language, a class (as most of you know) that focuses on nonfiction and images as text. In the class of about twenty-five students, three were male--three Latinos. One of those students stopped by to see me after the panel. I asked him how our school had prepared him for college life and how it had not.
He told me that our school had done a good job of helping him see his strengths. But we had not helped him identify his weaknesses. So when he got to college, he confronted deficits he never knew he had.
I asked him about my writing class specifically. "If there's someting that I did not include in class, I need you to to help me understand that," I told him. As we talked, he told me he valued the feedback I gave him on his writing. He expected As. When he earned Bs in my class, he understood why, he told me. More importantly, he understood what he needed to do to improve. As the conversation went on, we talked about other challenges that college students faced. Now in his sophomore year, he mentioned the drinking on campus. He asked me about marijuana. I was honest.
What I learned from my former student today is what he camly, insightfully shared near the end of our conversation: "It's one thing to teach, it's another to listen."
The debate about whether or not students should evaluate teachers is heated. Many say students are not fair. They say students will damage teachers' evaluations. Students, they say, won't know how to give meaningful feedback.
But today, my former student strengthened my belief that more teachers and administrators need to listen to students when they're in our classrooms and schools. More importantly, we need to listen to our students after they leave.
At the end of every quarter, I give students an opportunity for them to grade my teaching. We recall the texts, activities, and writing assignments from that quarter. Then I ask them to grade me with the same criteria I use to grade their work:
A: the work is memorable and goes beyond what is expected
B: the work is of good quality with only minor areas for improvement
C: the work is basic, common, ordinary
D: the work has some inaccuracies or is incomplete with major areas for improvement
F: the work is missing
I value their feedback because I learn what my students find meaningful and what they don't. I don't get straight As either. But today's conversation with my former student made me wonder--what do students think of my teaching after they leave high school?
If teachers, administrators, schools are going to prepare our students for today's world, a "today" that keeps changing, we need to listen to what our students say about their educational experience AFTER they leave our classrooms.
It's too easy for teachers to disconnect ourselves from the world outside of our classroom. That world changes. The post-secondary world my former students entered ten years ago is vastly different from today's. Here's a simple example: I don't remember any students having cell phones in 2003.
Schools need to use today's technology to re-connect with former students--the honor students, the struggling students, those in between--to see if the educational experience we provided truly made a difference in their lives.
We need to, also, create more opportunities in formal and informal ways to have students express what they think about school policies, educational practices, and--yes--what they think of teachers.
If we want to improve schools--especially neighborhood schools--these students' perspectives must be inherent part of our work as educators.
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