Sunday, October 24, 2010

Teaching Kids to Shine

Recently, a senior asked me to fill out a standard reference form that guidance counselors use to prepare college recommendations. After filling out countless forms, I've grown frustrated at the number of students for whom I can only give a mediocre reference. The form asks for three adjectives that come to mind when you think of the student. By now, I hate to think how many times I've used "friendly", "outgoing", "responsible", "polite", and other variations of the same. But the most difficult part of the form asks: "List one major contribution this student has made in your class. Be as specific as possible."

I wondered how students would respond to this question, so I created a sample reference form to give my ninth grade Leadership class. I did not duplicate the form exactly, but I explained that when they become seniors they will give a similar form to several of their teachers. I asked them to eliminate their favorite and least favorite, then select one teacher from the rest. They would fill this reference form out for themselves as if they were that teacher. I wanted them to see that in four years, most students can learn to be respectful, responsible, and cordial, but they need to learn how to stand out in a positive way. I thought the question about one major contribution would stump them as it often stumps me, and I hoped they would become motivated to make a difference in all their classes.

There was one response I was not ready for. "What if we aren't given any opportunities to contribute to a class?" These students have only been in their high school classes for about two months, and they only have 4-6 classes at this time, but the comment made me stop to think. The absolute cream of the crop student might make a major contribution in any environment, but most 13-18 year-olds are entrusted to adults for a reason. They need nurture and instruction. If we want our students to shine, we need to provide opportunities for them to do so.

At the end of four years, "turned every assignment in on time", "never got detention", "present every day", "never tardy for class", "scored in the 80th percentile on standardized tests" and the like may look nice, but are these really the qualities that are going to get noticed by colleges and employers. Even more important, are these the qualities that are going to enable young minds to become young adults that will make a difference in the world.

Whether you're a teacher or not, what are you doing to give children and youth opportunities to shine?  I don't ask that because I assume most people are not doing anything, but because I suspect that many people are and the rest of us could benefit from hearing about it.  So what are you doing?


  1. No doubt it is hard to make them shine when your own light is a bit dim...but here are my thoughts, minus the specifics. I think kids want to know that you care about them, that you have something to offer, and that you can help them. That can be hard but a start to help them shine. "It is nice to be important but it is more important to be nice". I saw that in another teacher’s classroom and immediately hung a similar sign on my wall. To shine kids need to have the right ATTITUDE.

    Showing them that their attitude makes a huge difference, and how the right one makes a difference. The right attitude towards people, towards learning, towards their community. That'll take kids a long way and help them "shine" as you suggest. I really don't think any teacher could do this alone and it takes efforts from countless people. With me I try to be there with them in their experiences(good and bad). Truthfully it appears to be the casual unplanned conversation I had in that time that some of my kids said had the most profound effect on them. Maybe along the way I helped them develop the right attitude.

    The hardest part of teaching sometimes is that it is so cyclical...we often do the similar things year after year, just with different kids. It can be really hard to let kids learn through experience and on occasion make mistakes, particularly when it comes to lessons about dealing with people and handling adversity. I admit sometimes I forget how much my attitude towards them and their importance matters...Hopefully I’ve added some polish to a few young people so that their real shine comes through.

  2. We really focus on teaching bell-to-bell, and focus on curriculum. There are times when I intentionally don't fill a block in order to interact with students on a more personal level. I've even advised some of my student teachers to take a break from instruction here and there in order to work on those personal interactions.

    I think this is different than not being able to teach for a whole block, or quitting early because your lesson is bombing. You almost used the cliche that "kids don't care what you know, they want to know that you care." I got sick of hearing that when I was in college to become a teacher, but I don't think I hear it enough today.