How Well Do You Know Your Students?

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.I’d like you to try a challenge I used to give myself several times a year when I was a classroom teacher. First, divide a piece of paper into three columns. In the first column, make a list of your students. Try not to use alphabetical order, grade book order, or table groups to help you remember. Just write the names down as they come to mind.

Then, in the middle column, next to each child’s name, write one thing you know that child likes to do or cares passionately about.

In the third column, make a star if you’re sure the child knows that you know this about her or him.

When I’d do this exercise (which I learned from Donald Graves, the great writing guru), the results were often humbling but powerful. Occasionally, there were one or two students it took me a while to remember for the first column—I took that as a sign that I needed to spend more time with them.

Sometimes, in the second column, I didn’t know much of anything about a child’s interests, or I listed the same interest I had the last time I did this exercise. That told me I needed to find out more about the child’s gifts and hopes—perhaps by having a private lunch, taking extra time to chat at arrival, or spending a few minutes together at recess.

The names without stars in the third column sent me a message about students I might have unintentionally been taking for granted. Rather than just assuming they knew I cared about and appreciated their talents and interests, I needed to connect with them.

I included this exercise in my book, Teasing, Tattling, Defiance, and More: Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors, because one of the overarching themes of the book is the importance of building and maintaining positive teacher-student relationships.

Teachers who know their students well are able to see children’s struggles with behavior expectations within the larger context of each individual’s particular strengths and gifts. Students who have positive relationships with their teachers trust us and our responses to misbehavior. And knowing students well is essential if you want to engage them (and their parents!) in working with you to address or change problem behaviors.

When I taught children whose behavior was especially challenging, and I did this exercise, those children’s names usually appeared near the top of the list—how could I forget them? However, I sometimes had trouble filling in the second column, or I couldn’t put a star in the third. I realized that when I thought of those children, what first came to mind were their problem behaviors. There was much more to them, but I had to work to see it. When I did that work, our relationships improved, and I was able to address the problem behaviors more effectively.

Building positive teacher-student relationships is work that continues throughout the school year, and one of the aspects of teaching where there’s always room to improve. Give the exercise a try. I hope you find it as helpful as I did!

Get better at handling behaviors that disrupt classrooms and interfere with learning.

Teasing, Tattling, Defiance, and More: Positive Approaches to 10 Common Behavior Problems, by Margaret Berry Wilson

“This book is positive, practical, and should be in the hands of every teacher. After reading it, I ordered a copy for every counselor, assistant principal, behavior coach, and resource teacher in our district!”
—Glenna Hess, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, KY

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.


Tags: Building Classroom Community, Challenging Behaviors

4 Replies to “How Well Do You Know Your Students?”

  • I think this is a great article for mid year. We have had 5/6 months with our kids. We should know our kids very well. And I bet most teachers do. However, a child’s behavior does interfere with all that teachers know of their students. Sometimes, it is difficult to see beyond the behavior to really see what the child can do. Sometimes a students good behavior makes it difficult to see when a student is having trouble learning a concept. Sometimes, a student is so well behaved that a teacher might just assume that child is understanding all concepts. So, it’s not just negative behavior. Teachers have to be very intentional and closely observe all students.
    I know things about my students that they like to do. There is one student who is new, that I have to learn more about. I do know that she wants to live in the Bahamas on the beach. That is what she said during my first week with her. I have to learn more! I do not have a classroom of students, but I still have to know my students very well.

  • I saw your email come in yesterday but I didn’t get a chance to read it until this morning. I had just finished my “quiet time” and had not turned the tv on yet so I thought , “I’m going to do that.”, not anticipating what I would find out. The first column was fairly easy. I got almost all of them(except for 2) but the crazy thing is the 2 that I forgot are 2 of my most favorite(Yes, I said that! I know I am not supposed to have favorites but sometimes I just can’t help it!) The second column was coming along pretty well until I got to the end of my first list and I found out those were the ones that I couldn’t recall some of their “interests”. There were not but a few but that made me really stop and think, those are the ones that I need to put my focus on so I can know more about them and what they enjoy.
    I could tell you things about them but to really tell you what they liked, that was something else. Finally, I moved to the last column…”Star” if I am sure that this child knows that I know this about them. I did better on this one because these are the things I talk with them about. I felt ok about that column of “stars” however, seeing the ones at the bottom of my list of those without any “interests” written beside of them was still “haunting” me. After doing this activity, I feel like I am more aware of students that maybe I have been “taking for granted”. Those last 2 on my second list NEVER give me any trouble. They are great students, smart, well behaved and that is probably why they are 2 of my MOST favorite(Did you catch that? They are my MOST favorites but all my students are my favorite! Way to get out of that, Potter! Right?) . Anyways, thanks for sharing the article with us. I appreciate the awareness that it brought to my attention and helped me focus on what I need to do! Hope you all are enjoying your day. MLK was a great leader for our country and even though I am enjoying this day off(and going to see my boys for a quick lunch date) I am remembering the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrating all that he did for ALL the people! (P.S. Please don’t check my spelling and grammar as I am in a hurry to get to see my boys and will not take time to reread and edit.)

  • Great thought provoking article. I often pray for each of my students, and feel that I am very familiar with their challenges because these are the inspirations of my prayers for them. However, I realize that I don’t know some of their interests, and that some of them don’t realize that I know them as well as I do. This was a good reminder to take time to communicate at a deeper level with students.

  • I love this strategy, and as a teacher for 25 years, I can tell you that I am as guilty as the next regarding really KNOWING my students. I am now a national presenter and instructional coach with students still being the heart of my work! I plan to include this activity in a new session I’m developing for BER around supporting 2nd grade students who demonstrate a lag in learning. (giving credit to Donald Graves and you, of course) My question – Do you have any suggestions for distance learning around this activity?

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