Throughout the school year, I’ve been inspired by listening to feedback from several advisory groups who represent various stakeholders within our schools and community. This year, some of these groups began meeting for the first time, such as our community faith leaders, while others have been revived, such as the Superintendent’s Business Advisory Council. In addition, we have expanded existing advisory groups, including the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Panels (elementary and secondary), in an effort to include more voices and create greater opportunities for feedback.
At a recent student advisory panel meeting, I asked secondary students to discuss their favorite lessons and innovative teaching techniques. The students were divided into several groups and provided several amazing examples. I was convinced that students have the highest regard for our remarkable teachers. I then posed a different question to them, “Of all of the lessons you have been taught, whether you enjoyed the lesson or not, what percentage of the lessons do you feel can be applied in a real-life situation?”
Without exception, all of the students paused. They contemplated their response and then spoke, but some were apprehensive. Out of approximately 30 students, all but one indicated that they only saw a real-life connection in 5-15% of the lessons. Taking the mid-point of the responses, we can surmise that students are seeing a connection in roughly 1 out of every 10 lessons that they are taught. Admittedly, this is not a scientific study. However, I believe it is far more important—it represents the voices of those we teach.
To be clear, the intent of the question was to gauge the relevance of lessons from the students’ perspective in order to gain greater insight. It was not intended to question the quality of the lessons currently taught by our exceptional educators. As noted above, students clearly have an abiding respect and love for our teachers, as do I. Rather, my question was all about making authentic connections.
For instance, we have all attended conferences, lectures, and professional development sessions. While some may have been entertaining, they did not necessarily have a significant impact upon us. However, others made a lasting impression upon us, which I believe remain with us because they have an immediate application to our lives and/or profession—they were relevant. They serve to influence and inspire us. Our students are no different and need these type of relevant connections in order to remain engaged and inspired.
My son and I experienced one of these moments while he was in elementary school. He took Tae-Kwon-Do for several years and even earned his black belt. This involved a lot of repetition, but the instructors also tried hard to “keep things fresh,” which was a key reason my son kept coming back. One Saturday morning, the students seemed rather lethargic and class was not going well. The master teaching the class called everyone together and explained to them that before every class, he would imagine that this would be the last time he would ever have to work with his students. He said he would ask himself, “How will I teach this class if it is my last one? How will I connect with students, and what do I want them to know and remember?” By doing this, he strived to make every class truly meaningful. It was a very transparent moment with the students. Instead of being reprimanded for being disengaged, the students saw an instructor who cared enough to keep himself accountable to them and wanted them to remember his lessons long after the class ended. The teacher connected with the students in an authentic way; the class rallied and ended on a high note.
I know that we all care immensely about our students in a similar way, and the quality of teaching in our classrooms is outstanding. Now, let’s concentrate on making sure our students are able to make authentic, relevant connections to the lessons we teach them. I’m not suggesting that we must completely overhaul our curriculum. There are still incredibly relevant lessons in everything from classic literature to mathematical formulas. Rather, I submit to you that sometimes it is appropriate to simply explain to students that while a particular formula, problem, or passage may not itself be directly used later in life, the process of problem solving, using the scientific method, writing, editing, revising, etc. are skills that are critical life skills, invaluable across a wide range of professions. In addition, I challenge you to find specific ways to connect the curriculum to the world in which they are interested, such as designing a problem or lesson around a topical issue, or allowing students to present their work to an authentic audience. This will immediately increase the relevance of the lesson, yielding higher levels of student engagement and achievement. This is at the heart of education!
When you are planning your next lesson, or just reflecting, ask yourself, “If I only had today to make a difference in the lives of my students, what would I want them to remember and be able to apply?” While this question may seem a touch grim at first, you may be surprised to learn how making relevant connections with students becomes your first thought rather than a secondary thought. Our students have spoken—they need and want to understand the connections. Our themes this year of “Relevance, Equity, and Innovation” are not new fads or trends, or boxes to check off a laundry list of “best practices.” Rather, they represent a daily journey of growth, reflection, and constant improvement. I thank you for taking that journey with me. It will serve our students well.