What My Students Have Taught Me About Teaching

TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Olivia offers a heartfelt and insightful look at the important things she's learned from her students about her practice -- and offers suggestions for how the "little things" can make the biggest differences on both sides of the desk.

Updated on: November 26, 2019

What My Students Have Taught Me About Teaching

Every day we are faced with a seemingly impossible task of engaging, teaching, nurturing, and inspiring a classroom full of students each with different needs. While this can be overwhelming, especially with all the content we are required to teach in such a small amount of time, we as teachers need to remember the value in what our students can teach us in just a matter of seconds.

Below are some of my favorite lessons I have learned over my five years of teaching, not from professional development, staff meetings, or colleagues -- but a room full of six-year-olds.

They Remember the Stories You Tell About Your Personal Life (and Love Them)

I had never given much thought to the stories or jokes I told my students -- it made them laugh and giggle which was more than enough for me to continue doing it constantly. I would joke about how I cannot live without coffee, my love for koalas, the adventures of my two crazy dogs, and antics of my energetic toddler. It took no prep on my part, and not even a minute of our time most days.

Eventually I found that my students were asking me daily for new stories, making jokes to me about coffee and absurd “what ifs” just to see my reaction. I would be in a parent-teacher conference and have parents ask me about the silly stories I was telling, and tell me how much their child enjoyed them. It took me quite some time, probably longer than it should have, to recognize just what I was doing when I told these stories.

I wasn’t just making them laugh -- I was giving them common ground, a way to connect with me when they didn’t know how, something for them to look forward to that didn’t involve pressure to perform or participate but rather just listen and enjoy.

Something as small and simple as a 30-second story can make the difference between a child wanting and not wanting to come to school.

They Love What You Love

This can apply to just about anything in your classroom -- if you show your passion for a topic or a subject, odds are that most of your students will love it blindly simply because you do. This was something I did not identify until after I came back from a long-term leave of absence and met with the substitute that had covered my classroom.

She couldn’t talk enough about how engrossed our students were during read-alouds, the variety of books they chose during silent reading, and their ability to read books independently with such expression and enthusiasm. Students would read books by Mo Willems and use different voices for each character, inflection and volume when appropriate, and dramatic pauses when necessary. I tried to wrap my head around what that implied. Was it something I was doing or something the students did of their own accord?

So I did my own experiment. I pulled out my Tomie DePoala books, the ones that had been sitting on our library shelf all year and hadn’t been touched, and began reading them for our read aloud. I tried to pour my passion for them into my read-alouds, reading some of my favorite books from my childhood, and then left them on our “reading now shelf.”

Lo and behold, as I listened during the silent reading centers, all of the students had Tomie DePoala books, reading them exactly as I had. On our next visit to the library, students rushed to the DePoala collection to check out a book, and proudly brought it to the check-out counter.

Here’s what this experience taught me -- your students are going to love what you love. They are going to try to do what you do, and they are going to be better, well-rounded humans if you use it to your advantage.

There is Nothing More Powerful than Specific, Positive Praise

This one may seem obvious, but take a second to reflect and identify the last time you pulled a student aside to tell him or her something he or she did that you are proud of, that was specific and unique in its compliment. While you may have given stickers, used that child as an example for role model behavior, or announced it across the room, the likelihood is that it has been quite some time.

Do not underestimate the value in a one-on-one conversation, spoken quietly with direct eye contact, to provide positive praise. Telling a student, “great job,” or “fantastic work,” are easy ways to get our point across, but they might not resonate with students as much as we may think.

For example, I had a student one year who was all around just a great human, followed directions, was respectful, and kind to others, and average academically. I felt I acknowledged him often, praised his success, and made a concerted effort to be sure he felt loved and valued. Eventually, though, I started noticing how often he came to ask me for confirmation -- was he doing it right, was he supposed to go here, do I like his writing? Which, in hindsight, were all cries for the attention I thought I was giving him.

It was at this point I began pulling him aside during transition times in our classroom (going to carpet, lining up for lunch or recess, during a brain break) to quietly tell him how great his writing was and why, how much I loved what he was doing during center work and why, or just how much I enjoyed having him in my class and why. All of the sudden I saw a completely different student! He became a leader, he no longer second-guessed himself, he had confidence. AND his academics improved drastically!

It took no extra time out of my day, did not interrupt our academic schedule, and helped a child be a better version of himself.

This one student who I had no worries about had been struggling and I had no idea because it didn’t present itself in obvious ways.

However, I was able to change that with something as simple as giving specific, positive praise in a direct setting. Imagine the changes you could see if you did this with a different student during each transition, small group, or even carpet time. You control far more than you think, even on the hardest of days.

What have you learned from your students? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Olivia Bechtel is a first grade teacher in Westerville, Ohio who loves implementing engaging, innovative lessons to inspire her students. In her free time she enjoys spending time with her husband, son, and two dogs.