The One Question Every Teacher Needs to Ask Their Students

When I completed my year-long student teaching internship, in a 10th grade biology classroom,  I was lucky enough to be paired with a true master teacher.  She had previously worked as a researcher for NASA, and while her extensive knowledge base, her meticulous nature, and her steadfast attitude made her more than a little successful on the job, she found the work to be too mundane, and too unfulfilling.  So she brought her expertise, her limitless patience, and her diligence with her to the high school setting.

While I learned a great deal from her in terms of the content (she had so much to offer!), I learned even more from her in terms of character.  I remember her sitting me down one day and telling me that while she could tell my understanding of the material was sound, my lesson plans were well thought out, and my delivery of the content itself was smooth and efficient, there was still something missing – and it was resulting in my students not learning.

I was missing a connection.

I was so caught up with making sure I knew the material and was delivering it the best way I knew how, I wasn’t directing enough attention towards who I was delivering the content to.

As soon as she gave me this honest and direct appraisal, I realized I had been neglecting to work on the relationships I was establishing with my students, so I began to actively include this focus when I worked on planning and delivering my lessons.  It paid off.

I distinctly remember one of my students coming into the room in a huff, a couple of minutes after class had already started, slamming her books down on the desk as she looked up at me and said, “this school is bullshit!  This class is bullshit!”  I had never been in a situation like this before, and the whole class was waiting to see my reaction.  A few students leaned back into their chairs, excited for the potential of a drama full of screaming voices and reddening faces to play out before their eyes.  But, thankfully, I had listened to my mentor and had been working on making connections with my students.  Instead of yelling, writing a detention or demanding that she speak to me in a respectful tone, I asked the girl a question that changed everything.

 “Are you all right?”  

Before asking, she had been standing with her shoulder blades pinned back tightly, her chest puffed out, her chin jutting high, her hands at her hips, clenched into fists.  A fighter’s stance.  After the question, her fists uncurled, she let out an audible exhale, shoulders and chest deflating. And she answered me, “no, I’m not”, and proceeded to tell me how unbearable her day had been and how stressed out she felt.  I told her I could tell that something was bothering her by her behavior, and that I hoped the day turned around for her.  She thanked me, sat down and pulled out her notebook and pen, ready to start the day, and the rest of the class followed suit.

That was the day my students started learning from me and my well-thought out lesson plans.

Character, it turns out, is the most important aspect of teaching.  

No one is denying that content-area knowledge is a must when it comes to being a competent instructor, but simply having and dispensing knowlege in itself does not make one effective.  No matter how good the presentation, the worksheets, the technology or the wealth of knowledge a teacher may hold, without inspiring, supporting and connecting, there can be no learning.

And many of our students are in dire need of inspiration, support and connection.  Many of our students are not all right.  They’re children dealing with adult fears, anxieties, abuse, neglect, intense pressures, a whole magnitude of grievances beyond our scope, and they often don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with their situations.

My fellow blogger and colleague, Sandwiches and Psych Meds recently pointed out that students can pull up information at the touch of a button, via Google, YouTube and Wikipedia.  We are no longer the only vehicle available for students to obtain information from.  She makes the statement, in regards to the future of the teaching profession and the teacher evaluation process,“If content knowledge … is all we care about as a society, then Google might as well be nominated Teacher of the Year”.  

Students, especially those who struggle, need to know we care in order to allow the possibility of learning to occur.  Master teachers understand this, and are sure to check in with their students periodically, asking if everything is all right.

Education, Qualities of a Good Teacher

The One Question Every Teacher Needs to Ask Their Students

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18 thoughts on “The One Question Every Teacher Needs to Ask Their Students

  1. Amen! I have learned over my years that “being real” with your students can build bridges very quickly. Using your sense of humor, sarcasm, wit, life experiences, struggles, hopes, fears, joys, emotions, failures, and success all help students relate and see us as human. When they can see that we don’t live in a bubble, our classroom, and that we deal with very much the same things they deal with it sure helps build that connection with them. Then, when they do have problems, there is a level of respect that can’t be achieved through our position alone. They feel safe and then helping them, in content or skills or just life, becomes much easier.

  2. Wow – This was really the right post at the right moment for me! Thanks so much for it!!!

    I am (nearly) 44 with 2 small kids and have finally (after 20 years of reflection on the subject!) resolved to return to school and attend Teacher’s College. As I read this it resonated so much with my own experiences and convoluted path thus far in Life. You are so right – many times as a student I just needed my teachers to really care if I was okay or not. I will keep your words in mind.

  3. Caring IS the big difference. Students immediately detect the difference between teachers who truly care and those who don’t. They will infinitely perform better for the ones who care.

  4. I agree with your statement about asking how they are doing. In many ways, this case included, the blunt question is the best. I enjoy using relationships as a way to “link up” when I teach in my classroom. As a government and economics teacher, many of the concepts taught and discussed in my room are best explained when compared to the relationships these kids have with their parents and peers. In addition, I often talk about the “two goals” I have for the students in my classroom. That is getting a good grade but also finding their voice and learning how to function in the world. If they know you care…..they will care. Thanks for the post.

    • I agree with your statement about asking how they are doing. In many ways, this case included, the blunt question is the best. I enjoy using relationships as a way to “link up” when I teach in my classroom. As a government and economics teacher, many of the concepts taught and discussed in my room are best explained when compared to the relationships these kids have with their parents and peers. In addition, I often talk about the “two goals” I have for the students in my classroom. That is getting a good grade but also finding their voice and learning how to function in the world. If they know you care…..they will care. Thanks for the post

  5. Oh, such a balance, this teaching thing! I found it to be the hardest job I’ve ever, ever done in my life. And I was a career changer. I was a television teacher before becoming a teacher. I never felt like I was enough, because I was so keenly aware of the HUGE responsibility I had. Frankly, I don’t want to go back, because of it. And I DID have that connection and make the difference that you are talking about. It was just too much for me, I’m afraid to say. I really couldn’t agree more with your post.

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