A Simple Way to Increase Student Satisfaction

Nonverbals are a good deal. Though simple and free, they enliven teaching. Stephen Ceci, professor of psychology at Cornell University, proved this. He taught an identical course—same syllabus, lectures, audiovisual materials, assignments, text, and exams—to two different student groups. But in one class, he added what he called nonverbal expressiveness, a wider range of voice tone and more purposeful gestures.

And students in that class approved. In the end-of-term student evaluations, they rated Ceci’s class with an overall score significantly higher than the typical class (3.92/5 compared to 3.08/5).  In fact, the rating in every category of the student evaluations improved. According the students in the nonverbal expressiveness class, Ceci knew more and was more organized. He was also fairer in grading, and even his textbook was of greater quality. But the biggest difference was in how the students perceived Ceci’s accessibility. The typical class rated him at 2.99. But the students who benefited from nonverbal expressiveness gave him a score of 4.06.

When he gestured, students in Ceci’s experimental class got to see meaning, not just hear it. And, as the tones in Ceci’s voice varied, they felt emotion behind the content. No wonder, these students were drawn further into Ceci’s class than the students in his typical class. With his gestures and voice expressions, he had recruited more parts of their brains into the learning process. He had engaged a powerful synergy of body, mind, and emotion.

Some teachers do all this just being themselves. But others of us need to learn how to show students the passions we hold inside. What gestures are helpful? And how can voice be varied to good effect? Watch for further posts.

Million-Dollar Professor

I wish I could have watched William Kilpatrick teach. In the early 1900’s he was known as the Million- Dollar Professor—not because he earned a million dollars, but because the coffers of Columbia University grew from tuition for his courses.

Kilpatrick’s math classes at Columbia’s Teachers’ College often swelled to more than 600 students. But when he taught, his students were known to say, they each felt like the only student in the room.

So they kept signing up in droves. Kilpatrick would stand there in front of them with his full mane of white hair, piercing blue eyes, slight build, and oversized personality and draw each of them personally into the world of math.

How did Kilpatrick shrink the room? How, in such a crowd, did he create intimate relationships with students? Here’s how you can teach like Kilpatrick:

  • Teach students, not content. You need to know the contexts of your students’ lives, Kilpatrick believed. If you can’t connect your lecture notes to their contexts, students won’t learn. What does your content have to do with their lives? This is the question to ask again and again.
  • Get students talking. Why do we pay more attention in a conversation than during a lecture? Because we know it will soon be our turn to talk. Kilpatrick capitalized on this. Students listened to him because at any minute, Kilpatrick would hand the conversation to them. Even in his huge classes, he used small group discussion. He valued their words.
  • Keep students busy. Kilpatrick guided his students through projects because he believed that learning is doing. He presented real-life problems for students to solve. Students listened to Kilpatrick because he was always about to call them to action.

Kilpatrick didn’t want to retire when he got caught with Columbia’s mandatory retirement age. After all, he knew he still had what it took to teach a good class. And he was right. His last class in 1937 was full—622 students.

Running Toward Trouble

I’m a duck and cover kind of person. I don’t like anything that brings anxiety—arguments or roller coasters or financial risk. And I took this way of thinking into the classroom. In my first years of teaching I ignored, when I could, a rolling eye, a dirty word carved into the desk, an insolent tone, a child whose eyes showed something was wrong, a terse note from a parent, the raised eyebrow of an administrator.

I soon learned, though, that trouble doesn’t go away. Eye rolling, for example, can evolve to swaggering and then to disrespect and defiance. Not following up on the terseness in a note results in a tense parent-teacher conference. And the longer a student’s eyes looked haunted the further behind that student fell in classwork.

So I took tentative steps toward resolving problems earlier. But not with much skill. For one thing, I used too much teacherese—the jargon tossed around for so long by so many teachers that students, especially by the time they get to middle school, take as a kind of background music that they really don’t like. In those first years of teaching, I called parents to make statements, not to ask questions, and I referred students to guidance counselors and principals without talking with them first.

I found it easier to run toward trouble after I developed this set of skills to take with me:

  • Come out from behind the desk. The longer I was a teacher, the less I talked like one. I found myself depending more on relationship than on role. I didn’t sit behind my desk at a parent-teacher conferences, and in the classroom I drew up a stool beside a student’s desk to talk about an issue. I tried to send the message to parents and to students that we were two people, sitting with a dilemma, looking for a solution.
  • Take good news. Hope helps, I discovered. Hope brings the energy to find a way out of a problem. It helps people reach out to others instead of isolating themselves. It gives the courage to take one small step . . . and then another.

  “Here’s an idea,” I liked to say. Or, “Here’s something good I see.” Or, “What do you       think about this?”

  • Seek information. With students, I had only a one-sided look, the view from the classroom. I saw kids in one dimension. But parents had a fuller picture. And so did the students, themselves. The more I talked, I came to see, the less new understanding I gained. Questions brought valuable information to the table.

Procrastinating grows problems. And, although trouble still daunted me, I found running toward it much easier and more pleasant when I used these approaches.

Which Way Do You Drift?

It’s hard to get it right in the tension between support and challenge. Give students too much support, and they fail to learn. Give them too much challenge, and they quit trying. With too little challenge, they’re bored. And with too little support, they’re frustrated. No wonder this is hard.

Learning for most people happens most naturally with high support and high challenge. Like a coach, high-challenge, high-support teachers look for potential and call it out. They push students to aim higher and further, to take risks, to learn from failure, to give effort. But, also like a coach, they provide tools and strategies and emotional support. Because they pour into students, they can ask much of them.

Most of us, though, have trouble staying in the coaching quadrant. Instead, we slip naturally and often into the roles of friend, boss, or bystander. New teachers, I’ve noticed, often come in with a soft start, as a sympathetic friend, and move quickly into a hard year. Or they come in as an authority-conscious boss and create a wall too high for students to climb. And disillusioned teachers stand back from students, churning out the class periods and the terms and the years, adding up the pay checks and counting down toward retirement. Not investing and not urging.

On our good days, we’re coaches. On our bad days, we slip into one of the other quadrants. For me it was usually into the friendship mode. Each time I moved into a new job or a new year, I’d tell myself to hold firm with students, especially at the beginning. But, despite my self-lectures, I often started out too lax, giving students too much leeway and then having to pull back the reins. On days I came to class with a headache or a family worry or a bad night of sleep, I had to make a conscious effort to be a coach, not a friend.

Under stress, you might err as I do toward a too-soft friendship role. Or perhaps you are more of a bystander or a boss. What is your natural drift? Knowing it can benefit you and your students.

A Favorite Teacher . . . Or Not

“You’re my favorite teacher.”

These are the words we like to hear as a student leaves class, or in the aisle of the grocery store on a Friday evening, or in a good-bye note at the end of the year.

But what exactly does this mean? Why was I the favorite teacher for John, but not for Kelli, who claimed Ms. Wilson as hers?

I gradually came to see that students often use those words to describe a connection they feel with a teacher, even though they might not be able to articulate why. Here’s what they could mean:

  • Your teaching style fits my learning style. Kelli, who had a practical, hands-on approach to learning and was a part-to-whole learner, liked how Ms. Wilson came right out and told it like it was, how you made flashcards for a test and then memorized them with a study buddy, how you built a model of DNA. In Ms. Wilson’s class you knew exactly what to do and how to do it. In fact, Ms. Wilson’s class was full of doing. Ms. Wilson, Kelli thought, would be anyone’s favorite teacher.

Except for John, who liked my class better. He liked discussions about ideas and big questions. He didn’t want to be told why George Orwell wrote Fahrenheit 451. He wanted to figure out why. John was a whole-to-part learner.

  • You’re filling a gap for me. No one on our teaching team could do anything with Alex Nott, except Mr. Grant. And this was because Mr. Grant had what Alex wanted—the wooden cars that Mr. Grant made to bribe kids into being good. Alex had to be good a long time to earn a car. And when he finally earned a car, he decided he wanted to make them. So after school, Mr. Grant helped him build cars. Alex had an over-worked mom and a dad in prison, and this time with Mr. Grant after school filled a gap for Alex. No wonder that Mr. Grant was Alex’s favorite teacher.
  • Your personality matches mine. I’d watch Alexa writing an essay at her desk. She’d sit there, biting her lower lip and with a thin line of worry on her forehead. Her freshly sharpened pencils would be lined up and her papers in a neat stack. She’d write, then erase, and write again. And then, her forehead would clear, and, I could tell, she thought she got it right. I knew how Alexa felt because that was how I had done school. Alexa and I had a natural affinity. And I was, I knew, her favorite teacher.

I learned early-on that I couldn’t be everyone’s favorite teacher, that I’d wear out trying. Still my students taught me how to reach toward kids who didn’t like me—to try to match my teaching style to their learning styles or to fill a gap or to appreciate a personality. This didn’t often turn me into their favorite teacher, but it gave them a greater sense of well-being in my classroom so they could learn more easily from me.

The Gift of a Wound

School hurts. It’s a place where students get wounded. Look back into your own schooling, for example. You may remember rushed teachers who made throw-away comments or bullies who passed their pain to you. Perhaps you were maligned for not having the right accent, the right shoes, the right hair. Or, you were ostracized for living on the wrong side of town or because the work was too hard for you . . .  or too easy, or for your ethnicity.

My wounding came from being different—a country girl moved to the city with braids instead of a beehive hairdo, with skirts mid-calf instead of mid-thigh mini length. I knew how to sing shaped notes but had never heard of the Rolling Stones. And I could trace my ancestors back to the old country but had never seen the Addams Family.

It took me a while to see the hidden gift of these wounds, to realize that the looks, the laughs, the assumptions that I wouldn’t fit at a party could be turned to a benefit. I didn’t see that being different was developing resilience in me and courage and creativity. And not until I became a teacher did I understand that I could turn what had hurt me into a haven for my students.

One day on hall duty at the middle school where I taught, for example, I watched the stream of students flow by. There in the hall, I could see a girl wearing a hijab, a boy with a prosthetic leg, a special education student newly included in my classroom, a girl with a missing arm, a student who towered over her classmates and one stretching to appear as tall as he could. I could see a student whose father had murdered his classmate’s dad.

These students, I realized, had my heart. All through my decades of teaching, I had reached for the students on the edges. The wounds of my differentness had caused me pain, but they had also deepened my understanding and compassion and were now helping me teach.

How to Find a Hiding Student

I hid in a bathroom stall once. I was in junior high and afraid of a bully. And plenty of my students have told me similar stories. Some days a bathroom stall is better than a lunchroom. But students also hide in classrooms, in plain sight. They shrink down into hoodies and curtain their eyes with hair. Some students shutter faces with blank expressions, and some turn into clowns, obscuring sadness behind happy masks.

Hiding seems safe to these students, but it’s hard to learn in the shadows. And, besides, I’ve found that students who hide usually want to be found. This takes some skill, though. A direct approach often causes further retreat. I didn’t find every student who hid in my classes, but I did discover some strategies that worked some of the time.

  • Notice them. In the clamor of the classroom, it’s easy to forget these students. But if you keep them in view, you’ll be able to see some patterns. When does the curtain lift? And when is it drawn back in place? Brains, even those of hiding students, yearn toward learning. When you know what catches attention, you’ve found a key you may be able to turn again.
  • Ask for their help—an errand to the office, alphabetizing files, advice on which short story to use in class, building a slide show, any task they might find meaningful. But keep the projects low profile. This steers the focus away from students not onto them.
  • Push in . . . but slowly. I felt a twin temptation with these students—to either keep a distance or to shove right in. It takes more courage and more patience to advance bit by bit. One week pull up a stool by a hiding student’s desk during a video clip. Say nothing. Do nothing. Just sit there. The next week, pat a shoulder as you walk by. Later drop a note on a desk, call a parent with a compliment, or read an excerpt from an essay. “I’m not going to tell you who wrote this,” tell the class, “but this is a good example of what all of you could have included in your papers.”

Finding a fading student is daunting. It’s hard emotional work. But when you finally see a spark in the eye or a tilt of the head, when you see a student come out of the shadows to smile at a classmate, you’ll be glad you invested. If you seek, I’ve found, you can often find.