Students share valuable insights when we take time to listen.
Middle level educators engage in a variety of professional development experiences in order to continue to learn about effective ways to work with young adolescents as they develop their identities, ideas, and “voices.” We listen to and talk with colleagues and other professionals in our field to learn more about young adolescents. Yet, we also need to listen to and talk with our students.
In January 2008, an article titled, “Listening to the Voices of Young Adolescents,” was published in Middle School Journal. The authors, Nancy Doda and Trudy Knowles, posed the following question to more than 2700 young adolescents: “What should middle school teachers know about middle school students?” Doda and Knowles asked these young adolescents to respond to this question in the form of a free-write. The authors then analyzed and shared their responses.
Fast Forward to 2016
In the spring of 2016, we engaged in a follow-up project inspired by the work of Doda and Knowles. Our project began with an initial Likert-type survey of 123 young adolescents followed by interviews of 26 students, 18 of whom had also completed the survey. The participants of this project were enrolled in the same school and included sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students.
The survey was composed of questions that asked young adolescents to specify their level of agreement or disagreement with statements about their beliefs in regards to teacher-student relationships.
Sixty-nine percent of students surveyed reported that they felt their teachers wanted them to be successful, yet the percentage of young adolescents who felt their teachers genuinely cared for them dropped to 38.7%. Further, only 16.9% of the students felt comfortable seeking out their teachers to discuss difficult aspects from their lives.
After reviewing survey results, we interviewed students and asked them, “What should middle school teachers know about middle school students?” We were also interested in whether the young adolescents would speak to the survey results and if any of their comments would provide insight regarding what it “looks like” to be a teacher who genuinely cares for students. We were also curious about whether or not teacher actions make it easier for young adolescents to seek out teachers to discuss difficult aspects of their lives.
Similar to Doda and Knowles, we found that the young adolescents we interviewed were eager to share their thoughts on a variety of topics. At times, they spoke so quickly and in such an excited manner that it was a challenge to keep pace with them.
Our findings were similar to those of Doda and Knowles, who organized their research results into the themes of quality learning and quality relationships. Comparable themes emerged in our work and are discussed below.
“We want to learn.”
The students we interviewed conveyed a deep desire to learn and grow as young scholars. They spoke about the importance of teachers providing them with opportunities to share ideas about what is taught and the ways in which they learn in the classroom.
Students’ responses included:
“Ask us what we want to work on instead of always telling us what we need to know.”
“Think about how we are processing things because we don’t process like you.”
“Is there a reason a teacher can’t accept late work?”
Young adolescents have deep and rich ideas about what they want to learn, how they desire to learn it, and how teachers can help them learn best. We need to ensure they have the chance to share their thoughts as well as listen closely to suggestions.
“Yelling just doesn’t work.”
Another consistent theme that emerged was young adolescents’ desires to have quality relationships with their teachers and relationships marked by calm conversation during times of discord or uncertainty.
Students shared a variety of insights regarding the manner in which teachers communicate with students:
“If you are frustrated with us, don’t yell. It won’t get you what you want.”
“Don’t yell at someone in front of the class. Talk to us. Yelling makes us do worse.”
“Have private conversations.”
“I’ve had teachers who think it is funny to be sarcastic. It isn’t. We don’t like it.”
“The students in my class want our teachers to like us. Why would we want to come to school and fight with our teachers? Learning should be done together.”
These students’ comments are stark reminders that how we speak to others is often as important as what we say.
“Mix it up, have fun, be you.”
Teachers’ lives, hobbies, and responsibilities extend beyond the classroom, and students are interested in knowing about the people with whom they spend a great deal of time. Like their teachers, students’ identities and interests are not solely defined by academic settings. The students we interviewed expressed a desire to be known by their teachers as well as know their teachers.
Students’ responses included:
“Get to know us inside of school and outside of school.”
“I don’t expect my teachers to be perfect. I just want them to be themselves and let me be myself.”
“Get to know your students. Let us get to know you. When we know each other we can agree on rules.”
As professionals, we often discuss the importance of developing relationships with students and the many benefits of such strong relationships. The students’ insights highlight that they also value and desire these relationships.
Doda and Knowles (2008) reminded us how listening to the voices of young adolescents supports the teacher’s ability to co-create educational experiences with their students. The students we interviewed welcomed the opportunity to give voice into their daily educational experiences.
We encourage middle level educators to commit to providing students the opportunity to share their opinions on “what every middle level teacher should know about middle school students.” Providing students with such opportunities can take place during different moments throughout the day such as during lunch or while waiting to board the bus at the end of the day.
In addition, more systemic efforts can be embedded into the teaching and learning process to encourage students’ active participation in their learning. For example, provide students opportunities to co-plan the curriculum or co-construct classroom expectations and norms. Implementing such opportunities may help students develop ownership of their learning when they see the different ways in which their input—their voices and ideas—are acknowledged.
We close our piece—as Doda and Knowles did—by sharing the views and honoring the voice of one young adolescent:
“We aren’t the enemy. We are your students and we want you to embrace your role as our teacher. As our teacher you need to work with us to plan out the year. If you want to help us be ready for life, then bring life into the classroom. We want to talk about important topics. We want to be challenged and supported. We want to be serious and wild. You can’t know all the answers to teach us. We don’t know the answers—together we can figure it out.” (eighth grade student)