On December 18, 2009, I had the great fortune to have a conversation about improving our school system with 18 recent graduates. They were equally divided between our two high schools, and 17 of them are currently enrolled in college.
We began our conversation by my asking what made good teachers great. They said the one thing that separated great teachers from good teachers was that great teachers respected students.
The graduates said it was easy to tell when a teacher didn't really care about the subject, when a teacher was teaching out of field, or was uncomfortable with the subject matter. They could tell when a teacher was there only for a paycheck.
What was obvious is that students will care when they know you care. Respect is a two-way street, and those students respected by teachers gave respect in return. There was respect because of the relationship that the teacher established with each student, not because the teacher gave a lot of classwork, homework, or extra-hard tests.
The graduates also shared that school should prepare them to think, not simply to memorize dates, places, or facts.
They want to know how to think about a problem mathematically, how to think about a problem from a language arts perspective or a social studies perspective. They want to know how to be able to prove their argument with information they had already learned.
Interestingly, the graduates said they needed more opportunities to stand up in front of a group and actually present what they think and not just write it or respond in short answers.
One said, "Every course could just be teaching me how to think, how to prioritize, how to get to what is important."
Another perspective this group shared was their belief that we made school too easy for them. They believe too many tests were given, too much homework was assigned, and too much emphasis was placed on grades.
In college and life they now realize that assessments are few but when they do happen, they're important. Their suggestion was to have fewer more meaningful assessments.
The graduates asked for opportunities to return to their alma mater to talk to students. They suggested students in our high schools talk to middle school students; middle school students talk to elementary students, especially in transition grades where extra challenges exist.
I believe that our graduates shared great ideas on how to improve. I thank them for coming on a wet, cold, and rainy afternoon to help us change our way of doing business.
I challenge you to include students in more decision-making processes at the district level, the school level, and in the classroom. I dare each of you to talk with students to let them help you improve your practice.