A Student of My Students First

The question I had been waiting for… “So, Mrs. Maloney, where are you in terms of the pacing guide?”  I knew that it would come during one of our “data chats” in which teachers check in with our administration team after each round of benchmark testing.  Each teacher on the team is required to share what they discovered in our data dig and what our next steps are.

I was slightly anxious because I was several weeks behind the district pacing guide and my classes’ first benchmark data showed it.  But I also knew why.  I spent the beginning of the school year learning about my students, or as Dr. William Ayers stated, “becoming a student of my students first.”

It is important to know who these little people are before the real work can begin.

I spend a lot of our first weeks and even months of the school year studying my new students.  I use multiple intelligences, learning styles and “getting to know you” surveys and inventories.  I get to know them deeper through their early writing, particularly narrative writing, journaling, and heart maps.  “I wish my teacher knew…” sentence statements can be the most revealing writing activity of the year.  I even have their parents write me letters as their child’s first advocate.

Reading conferences are critical as I learn who my students are as readers.  But nothing compares to plenty of good old-fashioned conversations.  I’ve learned to really listen to my students – to “listen with my eyes” as a school counselor once taught me.  Listening with your eyes means reading body language and non-verbal cues.  Simple observation will tell you who plays together, who borrows food, and who struggles with transitions.

Seeing students outside of school is an interesting way to get to know them better.  Many of my students are in my after-school theater program, so we spend two extra hours each day together, four times a week for six months.  You’ve never truly bonded with a student until your legs are dangling over the catwalk, adjusting lights together at a dizzying height above the stage while scarfing down Swedish Fish an hour before showtime.  But I also love to visit my students at their dance recitals, ball games and track meets.  They never forget the times you popped in to cheer them on and will often bring it up years later.

While I understand the value and worth of data, not understanding the inner workings of our students is a barrier to learning.   I need to know that K will slog through graphic novels that he doesn’t enjoy because his friends liked them, but will pour over a historical fiction book about baseball.  I need to know that G’s historical oral reading scores are low not because she doesn’t read well (she does!) but because she is too painfully shy to read in front of a stranger.  I need to know that D hates to choose her own partner and prefers me to assign them instead.

Studying my students doesn’t stop in October.  We’ll get new students, new teachers will come to work with us, and issues will arise as my students grow and change.  The bulk of the work happens early but it is truly a year-long effort.

The effort is not just for me to know my students, either, but also for them to know themselves and each other better.  My students compile data folders all year that show how they begin to know themselves as learners.  We do many teambuilding activities as a grade level all year including my favorite, our annual overnight field trip!  Fifth grade is an especially critical point in a students’ development; they need to feel accepted and belonging in their school community as they enter the tough stage of middle school.  We invest precious time in activities and lessons to promote social relations and belonging.  It is truly a part of our culture on the fifth-grade team.

The 5th Grade Annual Overnight Field Trip!

The 5th Grade Annual Overnight Field Trip!

Raquel Rios said, “Teaching and learning is an act of truth and authenticity in relationships is required for it to work. It is ritualistic and ceremonial at times but it is also organic and improvised.  It is a skill and also an art, it is a science and an act of faith” (p.5).  Building relationships with students are all those things.

Seeing the question in her eyes, I assured my principal that I would gain time throughout the rest of the year by teaching my students through their strongest learning styles, interests and making connections with them and their learning.  She nods with understanding and I sigh with relief, grateful that she understands the skill and the art, the science and the act of faith in learning about my students.


Beth Maloney

I am in my twentieth year of teaching and enjoy every minute of my time in the classroom. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and currently teach fifth-grade science and social studies in Surprise, Arizona. I am an enthusiastic public school advocate. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where I coach and mentor other teachers undergoing the rigorous National Board certification. I am the past president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teacher Network and president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I am honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and appreciate having the opportunity to represent the teachers of Arizona. I love talking with and learning from other teachers around the world. I strongly believe that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.

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