What Are Students Saying? Conversations to Promote Student Achievement

By Wynette F. Handy
June 2013, Volume 36, Issue 10

All school leaders want to know what is going on inside their buildings: if students are motivated and challenged, whether the curriculum is rigorous enough, if the faculty is welcoming and engaging, and if academic expectations are high enough. There are many traditional methods that could be used to problem-solve academic issues, but why not go right to the source? That’s right: ask your students!

One of the most beneficial and powerful activities I have ever participated in as an educator was interviewing students. The interviews provided me with invaluable insight into what many students, particularly students of diversity, face as they walk into our schools and classrooms on a daily basis. Not only do interviews help you to better understand your students, but they also assist you in making informed decisions about educational issues.

Start the Conversation

To get started, determine a population of students in your school you would like to learn more about, perhaps a struggling group of students. Decide if you will interview the entire group of students or randomly select them, and make sure that you have an appropriate representation of your student population. Develop a set of questions, either by yourself or with a group of teachers, that you would like answered. Follow your district’s guidelines as to whether you need to obtain parental permission in order to interview the students.

As you begin the interviews, ensure students are comfortable and let them know that you are collecting information that you will share with other school members to make their school an even better place for them. Most important, tell students that you will not divulge their identities when presenting the information you have collected. As students talk, take diligent notes or record the session to listen to it later, in order to focus attentively on what is being said. As needed, ask follow-up questions to clarify responses.

After completing the interviews, summarize the information for your faculty and look for patterns. Reflect with your staff on their attitudes and instructional practices, and determine whether they need to be modified to meet students’ needs.

Lessons Learned

From the numerous student interviews I have conducted, I have learned:

Student-teacher relationships are key. Students want teachers to develop a positive and trusting relationship with them. They want the teacher to know them beyond an identification number. Students want teachers to know their likes, dislikes, and fears.

A teacher’s personality is important. The number one character trait students wanted teachers to possess was humor. According to the students, the teachers’ thoughts, feelings, and actions played a significant role in the classroom. As teachers, we must be the kind of teacher that we would want to have.

Learning styles matter. As adult learners, it is easy for us to adapt our style of learning to the material that is being taught. However, for students the transition is more difficult. Teachers can help students by discovering the best way that they learn and teaching to a variety of learning modalities.

Students want to be challenged. It may be difficult to believe, but many students want to be pushed beyond their limits. They want to be independent thinkers. (One special education student actually told me he wished he had a teacher who had pushed him.) Educators must be willing to let students struggle a little. In the struggle comes learning.

You don’t have to be like me to teach me. I have learned many life lessons from people who are different from me. There is value added to any person who is able to teach someone who has cultural or linguistic differences. It means that person has ignited a fundamental connection with the learner that allows teaching and learning to take place.

School leaders must continuously seek additional ways to increase student achievement and performance, and one way is to interview students. Interviewing students provides a unique perspective. It not only reveals answers to difficult questions, it forces us to look at how we are serving our most valuable customers and resources in the school—our students.

Wynnette F. Handy is assistant principal at Showell Elementary School in Berlin, Maryland.

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