Firing Up Teacher-Student Communication

What do high school students really want from their teachers? According to the 40 students who expressed their views in Fires in the Bathroom: Advice to Teachers from High School Students, they want respect, honesty, and an understanding of them as individuals. Included: Students' tips for classroom teachers.

Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students is full of tips teachers won't hear in any teacher-training program. "It's okay if kids hate you at first," one student notes. "If you care about your teaching, you'll get past that." Another student adds that new teachers frequently worry too much about being nice to students, when in fact, "they're setting fires in the bathroom."

Reporter Kathleen Cushman teamed up with 40 teenagers from four urban areas (New York City, Providence, Rhode Island, and San Francisco) to write a book about what high school students say they need from their teachers in order to succeed. A writer for What Kids Can Do, Inc., Cushman listened to students' best and worst school experiences, and their hopes and suggestions for getting the best education possible.

What Kids Can Do is starting to involve high school students in conducting surveys and other research into their own schooling, and to use the resulting data to plan with teachers and administrators for specific improvements in their schools.

Cushman talked with Education World about the students' views and how educators are using her book.

Education World: How can educators use this book?

Kathleen Cushman: Teachers already are using the book in lots of ways. In Houston, as part of an effort to improve teaching and learning in their schools, groups of teachers and students in seven schools have read the book together and held discussions about it. Several teachers also have assigned the book as a work of nonfiction to students in English classes, and have used it to prompt students' reflections on their education. In Boston, new teachers read and discuss it before their first year in the classroom. In St. Louis, students and teachers have completed some of the exercises in the book together, and have even created their own variations on them. Teachers have responded to the book with great enthusiasm.

EW: How did you find and select the students to work with? How long did it take to research and write the book?

Cushman: Together with What Kids Can Do, Inc., the organization I wrote the book for, I cast a broad net among the schools, teachers, and youth development groups we already knew well. We asked them to identify students with a wide range of prior academic success, and we concentrated on students from backgrounds that reflected the typical urban public school. Almost all were students of color, and most came from backgrounds of poverty. Half were recent immigrants. The book took a year to research and write.

EW: What surprised you most about students' views?

Cushman: I was surprised that students did not point the finger of blame at teachers when they described negative experiences in schools. They recognized the importance of teachers setting clear expectations and maintaining an orderly atmosphere for learning, and they appreciated teachers who did that. At the same time, they resented situations that set up a paradigm of control, asking instead for the same respect that adults expect. They saw their education in terms of a bargain, in which they agreed to certain constraints in exchange for teachers who would know both their material and their students well.

EW: What are some of the most important things educators can learn from this book?

Cushman: The most important lesson of this book is how crucial it is to build teacher-student partnerships as the foundation for all that happens in a class, good and bad. Aside from that, students are communicating in this book their very real hunger to learn, which can so easily either be stoked or shut down by the smallest gesture on a teacher's part.

EW: It was interesting that you wrote in the book's afterword that, "Only when teachers can know their students well enough to respond to them individually will the suggestions in this book have any chance of taking root." How realistic is that hope, given all the demands on teachers' time?

Cushman: Of all the ways teachers could spend their time, knowing students well and responding to them individually is the one that reaps the greatest benefits. The positive energy that results when students feel seen, known, and valued actually gives back energy to the teacher, improves the classroom culture and tone, and replenishes energy and time for intellectual work together.

EW: What can teachers and schools do to get students more involved in their own learning?

Cushman: Ask them! Create time and space to talk about what matters to both teachers and students.

EW: At the heart of the students' recommendations seems to be "Get to know us as people." What are the biggest obstacles to implementing that key recommendation?

Cushman: Large high schools; schools organized in such a way that teachers must be responsible for more than 80 students; and a policy environment that reduces students to what can be known about them through a single multiple-choice test.