Sean Slade

Same Conversation, Different Location, Greater Impact

This post is the third in a series about the need to create connections with our students and see things from their perspective. Read "The Unknown Students" and "What the Kids Think."

"Get to know our stories." This was the most common response provided by kids when asked how teachers can show they care about their students (PDF). Other responses included

  • "Be there for us."
  • "They help me by listening and encouraging me."
  • "They talk to me as a person and friend, not just as a student."
  • "Ask us, 'How was your weekend?'"

These and many other responses came out of a series of Listening Circles conducted by Bonnie Benard and Carol Burgoa of WestEd with students across California in the early 2000s. Benard and Burgoa were seeking to hear directly from students about how teachers demonstrate caring relationships, high expectations, and meaningful engagement. Benard and I detailed these areas, called External Protective Factors, and the process in "Listening to Students: Moving from Resilience Research to Youth Development Practice and School Connectedness" (PDF), a chapter in the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (2009, Routledge).

The Listening Circles took place in every region and with every ethnic and socioeconomic group in California. The first interesting finding to come out of these circles was that the students—regardless of whether the kids were from Stockton, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the inland empire, down by the Mexico border, or up in Humboldt; whether they were rich or poor, black or white—elicited the same or similar response to our questions: See us as people, not just students.

All the students wanted their teachers to take an interest in them: ask them about their weekend, interests, and siblings or simply ask them how they were doing. But our second interesting finding—something we didn't get to highlight in the chapter—was the power that location can play in strengthening connections. Not location in the state, but location in the classroom and school. Conversations inside the four walls of a classroom have meaning. The students feel engaged and that attention is paid to them. However, many students reported that when the same or a similar conversation takes place outside the classroom—even one step outside the door—the effects are magnified. When time is short and there isn't time for more detailed engagement, changing the location can often turn a nice conversation into a powerful one.

Why? The students reported that they saw the conversations outside the classroom as real, as something that the teacher wasn't being paid to do. It was something outside (figuratively as well as literally) of the lesson, content, and role of the teacher. The fact that they were having a chat about themselves outside the classroom meant that the teacher really had an interest.

I really like these findings, because they show that when we make a simple change to what we do, it can have a great effect. Knowing this simple step, why wouldn't you take one step outside the classroom or engage in a chat down the hallway? Why wouldn't a teacher who wants to connect with a student or group of students increase the effects of their interaction by taking it outside of a lesson or the place where that lesson occurs?

Same conversation, different location, greater impact.

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