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Student Voices: What Makes a Good Teacher?

Student Voices: What Makes a Good Teacher?

At this point, we’ve spent close to a year traveling the world, visiting schools, and talking with students. One of our most interesting observations from this project is how consistent students are when we ask them a very basic question: ‘What makes a good teacher?’ High-end private school or low-income government school, small children or high school students, South America, Africa, Europe, America, or Asia; students everywhere answer in the same way with nearly the exact same words.

  1. First they say, “They’re nice to us,” or “They don’t yell.” The order of these statements varies a bit, but they are always the first two statements students make.
  2. Next, one student will add, “They help us when we don’t understand.” If there’s a group of students, the rest of the will murmur in affirmation.
  3. Students also tend to say, “Makes learning fun,” which can mean anything from playing games with content or just being an especially engaging lecturer. The point seems to be that the teacher has put some thought into how students will be experiencing class, and she wants to make it enjoyable.

There is sometimes a jokester who chuckles and says something like, “Doesn’t give homework.” And older students at exceptional schools will often talk about strong personal relationships with teachers who seem to be more like mentors. But the first three comments have literally come up every time we’ve asked this question of students, and almost always in that order.

What else is interesting is that students tend to react in essentially the same way when they hear the question. They smile and start answering almost immediately. This is a question they’re comfortable with. They know they have some expertise in this topic, and they’re fairly matter-of-fact about letting us in on what’s so obvious to them.

These comments may not be especially surprising, but I think their clarity and consistency warrant attention. One thing that stands out to me is how personal the comments are. Teachers often think about their relationship with a class, but students hardly ever think of themselves as just one member of a group. They see their relationship as a personal one with the teacher. Students talk about how a good teacher responds when they personally don’t understand far more often than they mention how well that teacher explains something to the whole class.

Teaching is tough, and teachers can get bogged down in disparate responsibilities and constantly changing criteria that they’re supposed to live up to. They get so caught up trying to be what their district and administrators want them to be that they can sometimes forget what their students are looking for. Since good teaching can’t happen without the students’ consent, I’m going to say that this student perspective matters a great deal.

So, teachers, if you’re looking for a few ideas to help anchor your approach to teaching, I might recommend these questions:

  1. Am I nice to my students? How do I show it?
  2. Do I refrain from raising my voice when I need to discipline a student or class?
  3. Do students who struggle get the support that they need?
  4. Can I make class more enjoyable for students while also maintaining/deepening rigor?

I’d like to say that these questions are simple, but anyone who has run a classroom knows that they can be incredibly complicated to address. And that complexity is even more of a reason to keep these reflections in the front of our minds. There are lots of ways to try to improve as teachers, but if we’re not ‘good teachers’ in the eyes of our students, chances are we aren’t going to get very far.

  • Will
Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

The first thing we noticed about The Riverside School was the space itself. There’s a large open area with offices on one side and long flat steps leading to a multi-purpose space on the other. There are open staircases and curved walls. This is a school that is so fiercely dedicated to the ideas of student voice and collaboration that even the school’s architecture has been designed around them. There is a circular well with seats descending into the ground. A ‘giant seven’ bench works as a surprisingly perfect collaboration space. A stand-alone circular brick room with large windows is used for class meetings and discussions. Students and adults traverse the space with comfort and purpose. Everyone here seems to feel like they are home.

Along the edges of the open area, there are boards that celebrate the school’s history and accomplishments. Riverside is consistently ranked in the top 5 schools in India, and its various national and international recognitions are too numerous to mention. Pictures show that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are just two of the many prominent people who have recognized its successes. The founder Kiran launched the school to even greater international fame with a TED talk she delivered in 2009. The day we visited, we met a group of educators from Hong Kong who had spent the past week at Riverside generally having their minds blown by what they were seeing at the school.

Riverside School meeting with Kiran

The founder, Kiran, leading a class discussion

After we were settled and offered coffee, a pair of 5th graders, named Adi and Sraj, took us on a tour of the campus. We peppered them with questions, and they answered them with confidence and poise. They explained that they liked Riverside because they got to experience what they were learning, “At other schools,” said Adi, “they are only like ‘read this or read that,’ but here they make us feel what happens. Like if they are learning about pollution, they just read books about how much garbage there is. But us, they will make us go to the places where pollution is happening and see.” Sraj chimed in, “Here we have experiences. We go everywhere.”

I asked them what they thought the most important thing they learned from Riverside was. Adi didn’t hesitate, “To be together.” “I think I’ve learned how to work as a team. How to collaborate,” said Sraj.

riverside school giant 7

Elizabeth with Adi and Sraj in the ‘Giant 7’

This sense of community also made an impression on the team from Hong Kong. They explained that back home, there is a very competitive academic culture where everyone is focused on their individual scores. By contrast, Riverside doesn’t even give quantitative marks until 8th grade. There is feedback, but it’s personalized and not comparative. As one teacher explained, “We are not competing with each other. We are completing each other.”

This idea of growing as individuals through being part of a strong community is reinforced through reflection from the earliest years. Even in Kindergarten, students will sit with their classmates and reflect, one at a time, on what values they best exemplify and why. Each student has a strength selected for them from the class values: polite, caring, helpful, or responsible. Personal and group refection is woven into everything that students do at Riverside. A high school student who approached me said that he liked the school because there was more of an emphasis on being a ‘citizen leader’ than an ‘academic leader.’

riverside school students

At Riverside, students can be seen collaborating everywhere.

There is also a strong emphasis on empathy. Students have gone a day without food, had limbs tied down, rolled incense sticks, and gone through a variety of other experiences to better empathize* with the plight of other people in India. Perhaps most dramatic is a tradition upperclassmen go through just before exams. While the rest of the students in the country are focused on cramming for the most important tests of their lives, Riverside students are told to take a few days to look inward and get perspective on the world. They spend a day with ‘bag pickers’ salvaging recyclables from trash heaps, and time meditating, and they generally try to put their lives and exams in a greater context.

Riverside’s approach does a lot to build intrinsic motivation and investment but it is not a complete antidote to teenage pastimes like procrastination. I was grounded by a scene I saw in a physics classroom**. A girl student was on the defensive. She was explaining, with a bit of frustration, that she wasn’t ready with her project because she hadn’t been able to contact her partner. She detailed the ways she had reached out. The teacher then looked to the boy the girl had mentioned. “Is that true?” asked the teacher. The boy admitted it was and explained that he wasn’t by his phone. “Do you really think that excuse is going to work, when you had over a week?” The scene went on like this for a couple of minutes, the rest of the class in awkward silence. The teacher laid out the ways he could have been more proactive. She was upset, but it wasn’t just because he was unprepared, it was because he had failed to live up to the freedom and responsibility he had been given.

So, there’s a no nonsense undertone that anchors the empathy, collaboration and reflection work that Riverside does. The no nonsense attitude is necessary, but it exists in a context of responsibility rather than compliance. It’s certainly not the main reason Riverside consistently outperforms the best schools in the country on the national exams. Riverside’s main insight is proving that when you focus on character and community, academics tend to follow.

  • Will

*The empathy in these experiences is not an end in itself but rather the first step in the Design Thinking model that informs much of what Riverside does. Students end up actually doing something about these issues. We’ll write more about that later, but you can get a glimpse of it in Kiran’s TED Talk.

** I was walking around unchaperoned. The Riverside administration literally told us to walk into whatever classrooms we wanted. It was the first time that’s happened to us on a school visit.

Quotes from the boards around campus:

Riverside School quote 2

Riverside School quote 3

Riverside School quote 4

Riverside school quote 1

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

When we walked into the Teach For India office, Elizabeth and I almost felt like we were home. We were introduced as Teach For America alums and former staff members, and the TFI staff greeted us like old friends who were eager to catch up. We didn’t know these people, but we felt connected by a common passion and set of values.

Over the next several days, we couldn’t avoid comparing what we were seeing with the organization where we’ve spent much of the past 10 years. We knew that TFI had borrowed a lot from TFA, but we were eager to explore the ways TFI had charted its own course. We wanted to know what TFA might be able to learn from its sister organization on the other side of the globe.

Several things stood out to us, but the one that made the biggest impression was TFI’s institutional commitment to student voice. We first noticed it when Sanaya was explaining how the Maya program (which we wrote about here) came about. TFI staff kept pushing their teachers to go beyond basic academics with their students. They urged them to focus on values as well and to help students develop leadership skills. The teachers agreed that these things were important, but they didn’t know how to translate this advice into action. Teach For India realized that they didn’t have a clear idea of what their advice meant either. So they decided to have a staff member create a program for students to figure out what this could look like. It worked. Maya has been successful and every TFI teacher I asked about it has spoken about how inspiring it is. Now TFI is trying to add a staff position dedicated to student voice in each of their regions. That’s a TFI staff member whose only role is to work with students to provide a model for teachers on what values based leadership programs can look like.

The next time we noticed how serious TFI is about student voice was when they invited us to participate at their Education Innovation Weekend. The three day conference led teams of staff members and teachers through a Design Thinking sequence to develop ideas to improve education in Pune, India. Each team also included one secondary school student, and their perspective was taken very seriously. Often the student voice ended up being the most influential at the table.

The adults in my group were having a heated debate about why most children didn’t enroll in secondary school. Eventually we calmed down and asked the student with us why many of her friends didn’t go to school. She told us matter-of-factly that it was because their parents would rather they find a job and earn some money. Later on, a girl from another group added a layer of nuance by explaining that parents didn’t respect the quality of the education offered at the government schools. The confidence in their assessments grounded us. These two comments became the foundation for the proposal we eventually submitted.

Individuals at Teach For America are passionate about student voice as well. This is something people can get quite emotional about. But at TFA, there is hardly ever the institutional commitment to student voice that we saw at TFI. There are no staff positions dedicated to student voice. Staff members rarely, if ever, work directly with students.

Students are common at Teach For America events. If the event is at their school, they might help with setup or with registering people as they arrive. If it’s a larger conference, there will certainly be some kind of performance by students. This type of involvement can be a valuable experience for students, but it is also scripted. I have never seen students given the opportunity to be active, unscripted participants at a TFA event. I can only imagine that, if they were, their voices would prove just as valuable to the dialogue as they did here in India.

TFA knows student voice is important and they try to prioritize it by providing professional development to teachers about why it’s important. TFI realized that this alone isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time TFA does too.

  • Will

For the record, I in no way mean this as a ‘criticism’ of TFA. I’m offering these observations with an understanding that TFA is an organization that’s deeply committed to continuous improvement and always eager to hear new ideas.