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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

What Matters to Students

What long-term impact does a teacher have on a student? What do students remember after a class is over? Students' recollections reveal some surprising answers.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation attributed to Bennett, which I copied and posted by my desk:<POEM><POEMLINE>No written word nor spoken plea</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Can teach young hearts what they should be,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Nor all the books upon the shelves,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>But what the teachers are themselves.</POEMLINE></POEM>
Recently, I became an instructional leader, a position that took me out of the classroom for the first time in my nine-year career. I found myself continually confronting issues regarding a more rigorous curriculum and how teachers could cover it all. As a science specialist at the intermediate level, I tried to make the curriculum accessible to the average nonspecialist teacher and to make it relevant to the student.
With Bennett's words in mind, I decided to do something radical—ask my former students what they remembered about my class and what they believed were the most important lessons that they had learned from me. I hoped to answer for myself the question: "What should we teach?" I wanted to find the long-lasting lessons—what had made a long-term impact on individual students.
The inspiration for my project came from an encounter with a former student a few months earlier. He was excited to see me and confided that what he remembered about our time together was my spending part of one 50-minute math class talking about emotional intelligence. He said that he carried this lesson with him throughout high school and wrote an article about it for his high school newspaper. I wondered if his experience was unique and embarked on a journey of reflection.

The Survey

  • What class(es) did you take with me? Please state the course, grade, and year; for example—Grade 7, Science, 92/93.
  • What is the most vivid memory you have of that class? Please describe it and explain why it stands out in your mind.
  • What is the most important thing (either inside or outside of class time) you learned from me as a teacher? Why? How have you used this?
  • What would you change about the way school is now?
  • Please tell me about your life after our time together. What did you do? What are you doing now?
As I began to go through the responses, I was struck first by the excitement many of the students expressed at being contacted by a former teacher. Then I was reminded of some of the subjects that I had been reading for my own professional development. I had taught Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences in some of my math and science classes, and many of the responses suggested that students understood the theory. Also, students seemed to validate aspects of brain-compatible learning in their responses. The long-term impact I had on these students centered more on skills and values than on content.
Some trends emerged from the responses. Students from my first years of teaching (who had reached their early 20s) often had the most detailed, insightful answers. Certain answers brought back funny memories (such as my overuse of the lights as a classroom management technique during my first year of teaching), and others brought tears to my eyes because I had no idea that the little things that I had done or said had affected students. I learned that one never knows when something, anything, makes a huge impact.
The question about the most vivid memory yielded some surprising answers. Some students referred to projects in class, perhaps because these had required a lot of time and effort, but others had a specific memory of a particular class. One student said that she remembered the day we "had a demonstration with the tent that was starry inside." A technologically adept student remembered "playing with those ray boxes and the mirrors." Another said, "When we did our first lab in grade 7. It was out on the field and we were counting blades of grass." A student from my first year of teaching described several vivid memories, from the use of Bunsen burners to my reading aloud to the class (more than one mentioned my reading because it was very unusual for any teacher other than a language teacher to read to them, especially in junior high school).
Other responses were about experiences that could be considered kinesthetic (playing simulation games), visual-spatial (building things), or interpersonal (use of drama). Perhaps these students remembered lessons that were unusual; many of them noted that these experiences stayed with them because they were not typical.
It was the responses to the third question, however, that really affected my thinking. Holly started her answer by stating, the most important things I learned from you weren't in class, but during the Science Olympiad [an extracurricular activity]. . . . The skills [teamwork and independent work] I acquired from this experience . . . led me to organize clubs and activities at my high school.Ab learned leadership skills and patience through involvement in a peer-tutoring program.
Adam began by saying, "The things I learned from you have nothing to do with science." He went on to talk about feeling close to me because I was his first homeroom teacher and because I was young. He also pointed out that I was one of the few teachers who shared his Chinese heritage. Both Adam and Jason said that some of the important lessons that they learned stemmed from my classroom reading of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.
As a teacher, I began using reading aloud as a classroom management technique. Students rotated from class to class throughout the day, and it would take several minutes for them to assemble in my classroom and calm down. My reading aloud at the beginning of the class period helped them get settled. Although Adam suggested that this was a peaceful time in class, Jason had a different reason for listing this memory. Jason said that the themes of the book disturbed him profoundly and caused him to think about how people were persecuted for their differences. Ultimately, it pushed him to become more tolerant of others. He called it a "turning point of sorts."
Devon offered this insight:The most important thing that I learned in your classes was that you have to work really hard at things that you are good at to make up for things that you have problems with. I was always pretty bad at science, but when we had to get up in front of the class and present something, I did really well and that brought my mark up. I also had to come in for extra help and ask a lot of questions to keep up with the class, and that made me more confident asking for help in other classes.
  • "To apply my knowledge and hard work to activities outside the classroom."
  • "Self-confidence and how important it is."
  • "Most teachers just teach their subject and nothing else. I was actually really happy when you gave us that article [about study skills] because it showed that you cared about our well-being."
  • "How much science is important to society."
  • "Intelligence isn't everything."
  • "How you encouraged everyone to do their best."
  • "My marks reflected the amount of work and focus I had in a class."
  • "You taught math differently—there is more to math than just formulas. This doesn't just apply to math—if I took a different view toward some subjects, so much more could be learned. Delving deeper into the matter can result in greater understanding."
Students often apologized when they indicated that the most important lesson that they had learned from me had nothing to do with science or math. At first, I was concerned about my perceived failure. After all, if I had been a successful mathematics or science teacher, wouldn't the most important lessons I taught have to do with my subject matter? As I reflected further, however, I realized that I would have been upset if the students had told me that the biggest impact I had on their lives was my ability to teach them the postulates of the particle theory of matter or the Pythagorean theorem. I was touched that I had influenced the lives of so many young people.
Many students offered multiple suggestions for improving the school system, and their ideas showed a great deal of thought and perception. The answers generally clustered into two groups: suggestions about attitude ("ensure that teachers respect students"; "find more teachers who actually want to be teachers"; "improve the morale at schools") and suggestions about teaching methodology ("challenge students to do more than memorize . . . rather interpret, analyze, and apply"; "more hands-on learning"; "more projects that involve different learning styles that can give students more opportunities to shine"; "give students opportunities to learn at their own speed"; "more interaction . . . rather than sitting down in classes and doing questions out of the textbook").


In the grand scheme of things, I would like to think of myself as a teacher of students rather than one of math or science. So my attempt to answer the question "What should we teach?" slowly changed into a reminder about "How should we teach?" We should teach with honesty and integrity. We should teach with respect for our students as individuals with varied backgrounds, talents, and needs. We should teach with our hearts as well as our heads because we do not know what part of our lesson will have a lasting impact on any one student's life. Events that do not seem important to us could turn out to be life-altering for one of our students.
As I continue to collect responses and reach out to the next group of students, I realize that such feedback is a valuable tool for improving my practice. Too often, the only feedback that a teacher receives is negative—we hear when something has not gone well. All of us need to hear about the times that things go well because they provide positive feedback. It is food for our souls.

Catherine Little is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. In 2012, she was recognized as a University Teaching Fellow. Catherine's research interests include professional development, differentiation of curriculum and instruction, and classroom questioning practices. She also directs and conducts research related to UConn Mentor Connection, a program for academically talented adolescents. Currently Catherine serves on the board of directors for the National Association for Gifted Children.

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