Dear Teacher, If You Only Knew: (What Truly Energizes Educators)

This collaborative piece by Nick Strope, a high school math/AVID teacher, and Kecia McDonald @McDonoald_Kecia, a district resource teacher and parent of a high schooler, intertwines the unique perspectives from a student, parent, and teacher point of view.

Mom, I really like the way Mr. Strope assigns work that is relevant. He gave us an essay, and I usually don’t like writing essays, but I didn’t mind doing this one. It’s something I can use again when I apply for college, so it wasn’t a waste of my time. I wasn’t doing it just to do it.”

Kecia: I knew my son was not looking forward to returning to in-person schooling. During distance learning, he had enjoyed the independence of getting school assignments done at his own pace while using his free time to practice life skills: getting a job, working on cars, and taking on digital media projects with a small business owner. I feared he would quickly lose interest and become disengaged entirely when he returned to an all-day school schedule. I couldn’t believe it when he was excited about writing an essay and was proud of his work.

Nick: Teaching the AVID elective is both a privilege and a challenge. Since it is designed as a college preparatory class, it is hard to find the balance between assignments that lend themselves to the idea of college-level rigor while also engaging high school students in completing them. Writing is a key component of the class, so for their first major writing assignment, I decided to have them use the CommonApp essay prompts to write for their first major writing assignment. I was blown away by the quality of stories told in the essays and I’m glad that they benefit the students in the future as well. What started as an assignment to help me not have to struggle with planning turned out to be a very powerful assignment for my students and me.

“I couldn’t think in the cafeteria with all the kids in there making noise. I went into Mr. Strope’s room, and he let me work there.”

Kecia: When my son told me he went to work in his teacher’s classroom, my first question was, “You didn’t disturb his class, did you?” I quickly started to tell him how precious and essential teacher break or planning time is, and how lucky he was to have a teacher who was willing to allow him to interrupt it. “It’s okay, Mom. I got a computer and sat on the other side of the room while he still did his work.” I wondered if Mr. Strope knew how much it meant to my son to be able to find a quiet and peaceful place to go to in his school day.

Nick: One major challenge that many schools face is the shortage of substitute teachers. Classes that aren’t covered are sent to the cafeteria for the period so there can be supervision. There are 5-6 classes full of students trying to work in the cafeteria on any given day. Trying to get work done with all of those people and distractions must be very challenging. With that being said, I usually have students come by my room throughout the day asking if they can work in the backroom for the period. As long as they can get work done, it does not bother me. Even during my preparation period, I would rather have students working safely and productively in my room. These are the times that allow for authentic relationships to be formed.

Reflections from Kecia

When I was a classroom teacher, I used the “What I Wish My Teacher Knew” activity to invite my students to share information with me so that I might be able to empathize and support their life inside or outside of my classroom. Few of them used the opportunity to tell me something they were really proud of, and the majority of them used the activity to divulge a difficulty in their life.

This year, after the freedom and independence of distance learning, my son was not looking forward to returning to school. I thought I was going to hear a constant stream of negative narratives. Stories from school are often the less than positive ones detailing grumbles about an assignment, the quality of the cafeteria food, unreliable group project collaborations, or unclear grading practices. I never wanted to pull the “teacher card” and use my insider knowledge to pepper my children’s teachers with questions. Parent criticism is heavy for any teacher, and I did not want to contribute to that burden by sharing negative ʻreviews’.

When several positive tales came home, I was pleasantly surprised. My son told me how Mr. Strope was creating meaningful assignments and how he would visit him when he needed a quiet place to get work done. My instinct was to share this feedback with his teacher, but he would get embarrassed. It made me wonder, how many times are good things happening in our schools and the teacher has no idea of the impact? How many moments mean the world to a student, but are not communicated to their teacher?

Reflections from Nick

Like many educators, establishing a supportive relationship with my students is at the core of everything I do in my classroom. From the way lessons are delivered, to the work assigned, to the physical setup of the room, I try to make sure that my students know they matter and are safe. In the end, I want to make a positive difference in their lives. But as any teacher knows, we often don’t get to see the impact we’ve had on our students until much later. With some, we will never know.

Getting to the heart of how a student feels in a school is a difficult task. I often ask my students for feedback, and it typically requires asking guiding questions and leaves me questioning if what was said is accurate. Rarely did I communicate directly with my teachers about how I was feeling in the class or about an assignment. I remember being a kid in high school and having the same conversation with my parents daily:

“How was school today?”

“It was good.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“Nope.”

Negative news was the only time I expanded. It makes me wonder what are the conversations my students are having with their parents when they get home. Did the assignment today make an impact? Do my students know that they are safe in my room?

For me, there is so much power in hearing from a student or parent that I made a difference, that the discussion I had today made a student think critically, that the assignment I put time into creating achieved its purpose, that the student knows I care. It is those comments that keep me motivated when the challenges of the profession set in.

Final Thoughts

Communication is imperative. Helping students means taking the time to share perspectives from both the parent and teacher. Just as a robust learning environment and relevant work can bolster student engagement, feedback is elemental to bring purpose for both parents and teachers at this critical time in education. When we think of significant systemic issues such as attendance, learning recovery, or teacher burnout, it can be overwhelming to an educator—but connecting over stories and partnering for the good of a child/student? We can do that together. By sharing these positive moments, we build a healthy community that sustainably supports both our students and teachers.

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