The Importance Of Asking

Whenever you decide to write about any profession or area, there are those within the profession who question your motives. Some wonder why you would take the time to write about something you live every day. Some wonder if you are looking to get noticed and move on from the profession you keep writing about. Some wonder why you are so weird. And, some wonder whether or not you think you know everything.

The first couple are easy to answer. I write because I like to write. It’s what I do. Sometimes I write about baseball. Lately, I want to write about education. No, I am not looking to get noticed or move on from teaching. I have no aspirations beyond the classroom. The best part of each day is in the classroom. That feeling hasn’t left; in fact, it has gotten stronger over the past couple of years. Am I weird? Ok, maybe you got me there.

But, that last one is a tough one. I write things based on my experiences. I write things that I’ve learned, hoping to pass along the lessons from my mistakes. I write things that question tradition and hope that I can, in my own small way, contribute to change. But, I never write anything with the idea that I know better or know everything. A teacher who thinks he knows everything is the most dangerous of all; he isn’t open to anything new and certainly won’t have the wherewithal to adjust to students. A major part of writing is about learning more about a subject. The more I learn, the more I ask. Asking is what I hope makes me a more effective teacher in the classroom. Asking is what I hope makes classrooms better for students.

To be honest, the end of the school year is always a bit difficult for me. It goes far beyond the normal fatigue associated with a school year. It goes far beyond the idea of moving on from a group of great kids that you have shared a classroom with for the past 10 months. The difficulty comes from a simple idea: I wish I did more.

That may sound cliche or melodramatic–or maybe a little of both–but it is truthful. As much as I can honestly say I put into the work, at the end of every year, there is always a feeling of disappointment. I think of the lessons that fell short. I think of the ideas I had after I actually went through units. I think of the things that would’ve been more beneficial. I think of the wasted minutes that could’ve been used to help kids more. Those feelings of failure are what drives me to want to be better, to want to do more. And, most importantly, to want to learn more. I will learn by reading other professionals. I will learn by talking with other professionals. But, my best source of improvement comes from those who I am trying to teach.

To learn more, I ask more. Throughout the year, I will ask students for feedback on lessons and units. At the end of every year, I always give a course evaluation. It is important for me to hear what kids have to say. I want to know what they thought was great. I want to know what they thought was awful and/or a waste of their time. The only way I can know is to ask them.

It is never a waste of time to ask students what they think about your teaching or your class. If you provide a safe place and give the proper questions, students can provide tremendous, in depth feedback that will improve your instruction and make your classroom better for your next group of kids. If you truly want to get better, evolve, and become a more effective educator, you must be willing to hear it all–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright nasty ugly. That information is vital, but is often overlooked. We need to make it a regular practice to ask kids about their time in a classroom.

Some suggestions for effective course evaluations…

Make It Anonymous 

You are more likely to hear the truth when a kid knows that he/she can keep his/her identity private. That keeps the worry about grades out of a student’s mind. Even though you would never do it, it is natural for anyone to think that. Think about when an administrator asks you to complete to a survey. If your name is on it, you do think twice or word things differently.

Short Answers Are Valuable

We have this bad trend in the education field that puts quick data as more valuable that actual feedback. Sure, you could probably Google a quick survey with multiple choice answers such as “high effective” and a range down to “not effective”, but what are you really gaining? Ask kids questions; let them write their answers. Their answers can give you a clue about so many things, not just the question you are asking.

Here’s an example of some excellent feedback from the question “What was the area that needed the most improvement in this class? Why?”

I would’ve liked if before the research papers started, we read samples of research papers and pulled them apart and analyzed those instead of spending so much time focused on how to identify reliable sources, bc writing the papers, I personally mostly just used ebsco, which were all reliable/peer reviewed. When I started the research papers, I found myself not understanding the direction the paper had to go and the tone I had to establish. I was confused bc I had never written a research paper so I would’ve liked reading more examples of good research papers.

There’s so much to this answer and it will definitely impact how I approach this type of research paper next year. I will still place an importance on reliable sources because that is important in today’s world, especially when they don’t have a database handed to them. But, showing them more specific models that demonstrate argument research papers will be more of a focus. We focused on models of research papers, the mechanics of it, but the tone and direction, in hindsight, wasn’t done until later. Next year, it will be done earlier.

Without allowing students to actually write and give extensive feedback, I would’ve overlooked the nuances of writing. Covering that earlier in the process will make it far more effective. And, even though it wasn’t a main point of the feedback, I will make a point to explain why reliable sources are important, even with the safety net of EBSCO.

Ask Them What They Wish 

I always want to know what kids would’ve liked to learn in class. A lot of the times, kids will give titles of books that they wished to have read or activities they would’ve liked to have completed. This year, the majority of my 89 students said they wished we had more formal debates in the class. It’s something I will build in for next year.

Ask Them What Activities They Did and Didn’t Like

Ok, don’t be sensitive here. Your favorite lesson on your favorite book may not have resonated with kids. If you get enough negative feedback, it is probably time to revamp. Or, maybe it’s time to pick something that may resonate more with kids. If you get kids to buy in, maybe you can bring in your favorite activity to show the relationship. It’s easy and gratifying to read about the stuff kids dug, but it is equally important to hear what things didn’t interest them. Then, you can decide whether the lack of interest outweighs the intentions of the lesson.

Ask About Your Style Of Teaching

Yes, this can be sensitive. But, wouldn’t you rather know if your way of doing things is effective? If enough kids say they are confused or needed something else, you must change. Changing is difficult, but if your goal is to reach kids, you must be willing to hear feedback and evolve.

On this year’s survey, a number of students wrote that although they loved the lack of a formal structure of the class, they did often wish for a quieter environment. It is something I must learn to balance. I will make improvements, even though it isn’t something that I normal like to do. But, there will have to be a bit more structure during certain activities. Kids are asking for it. It is my job to evolve.

Ask Anything You Feel Could Help

Are you curious about a particular lesson and it’s lasting power? Ask. Do you want to know if students feel like your grading practices are fair? Ask. If you can create an environment where students are free to give honest feedback, you can get valuable feedback on every area of your instruction. That is more valuable than a PD session or reading a book. This is first hand, practical feedback that directly applies to you and your audience. Sure, you may cringe at some things you read, but those moments are worth it because of the improvement it offers.

If you want to learn more, just ask.

**Here is a link to my survey that I gave my 89 students. I normally ask my classes their favorite pieces of literature that we covered, but since this wasn’t a literature class, I took that question out.