Finding Humanity in our Learners

There are amazing things you can learn about a person when they are interviewing for a job. The job applicant usually starts the interview nervous and it is difficult (at times) to get beyond the nervousness so you can really learn about the person. I vividly remember one job interview in which all of us conducting the interview were having difficulty feeling as if we were getting to know the person. Finally, I veered from the prepared questions and asked one simple question which was, “Do you have to like kids to be a great teacher”. The answer clarified the applicants attitude well…he said, “No, you don’t have to like kids, just teach them”. We thanked the applicant and sent him on his way (without a job offer by the way).

Look for the Human in Every Learner

This experienced reinforced an idea that had been brewing in my head for a while. Namely, that all educators must look beyond their position, their curriculum, their classroom management plan or whatever other obligation their school has imposed on them and try to excavate the human in every learner. A teacher is more than a position whose responsibility stops at presenting information to kids.

Our learners are coming to us in a world that is in disarray. Traditional institutions such as families, religion and schools are under so much pressure that they are fraying at the edges, barely able to maintain what they have let alone nurture kids. Society is becoming meaner as the media celebrate callous behavior and our politicians become bullies. Schools need to be a safe haven from the worst inclinations of our society. Teachers hold the key to this transformation.

Teachers are able to create a space where learners can experience an adult not acting mean or exhibiting bullying behaviors. Learners can experience an adult who sees them for who they are as a human, not just a number on a test. There are five things a teacher can do to see the human in all of their learners.

  1. Talk to all learners in a first-person voice.
    Something that I pay attention to when I walk into a classroom (or an athletic practice) is to listen to how a teacher is talking. Communication is much more than the words we say…it is also your tone. I have learned in 27 years in education that learners are particularly sensitive to tone. At times, they simply will not hear the words if your tone does not match your words. Teachers have a tendency to speak at or above their learners in a “lecturing” voice. This sometimes even occurs when teachers are talking to individuals or small groups of learners. My suggestion for teachers is to concentrate on getting out of the habit of “lecture voice” (or authoritative voice”) and just remember you are talking to a fellow human being. That human in front of you is no different than you. They have foibles, strengths, blind spots and all matter of idiosyncrasies…just like you! Recognize and accept those differences and speak with them with wonder and curiosity.
  2. Be understanding
    Realize that kids have more than your class on their minds when they enter your room. Besides the personal “outside of school stuff”, learners enter your room and engage in your learning experiences with different perspectives and priorities for school. Whether it is a big exam in a class right after yours, or a band concert that night, your class is just a stop during the flow of their day. Some days your class is important to them, other times, not so much.
  3. Let go of some of your ego
    As you walk into your class, check a part of your ego at the door. Do not interact with learners so they can build your ego. Instead, let them fill your soul. Their quirkiness, silliness and other peccadillos are what makes them (and you) human. Celebrate it!
  4. Get Connected to your learners
    Take the time to know your learners. What are their dreams, hopes, and desires? What are their academic and social strengths and weaknesses? I know athletic coaches who try to fit their idea of a “system” onto their team without recognizing that all teams are different. Great coaches tailor the way they want to play with the skills and aptitudes of their players. Do that in your classroom as well.
  5. Create learning experiences that encourage positive collaboration
    Recognizing the “humanness” in every learner can be accelerated by creating learning experiences that require collaboration among your learners. You not only encourage a positive life skill, but you also learn about the learners as you facilitate the learning experience.

Unlike the job applicant that I encountered, you are a teacher that cares about kids. You understand the value in learning about the human within every learner. Now go, treat each learner with curiosity!

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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