The Importance of Knowing Your Students | Steve Barkley

The Impact of Knowing and Being Known

I frequently mention the importance of “knowing” in my training and consulting.  Communication increases when people are known to each other.  When a middle school science teacher can’t tell me the name of someone teaching freshman science at the high school, I know that communication about curriculum alignment or student needs is not going to occur.

Trust can be built when staff are known to each other. When teachers have not seen their colleagues work with students and not discussed the desires and commitment they have to their students’ success, it’s extremely rare for high levels of respect and trust to develop.

Teachers cannot create personalized instruction or motivational environments without knowing their students. Highly effective teachers create purposeful opportunities to learn about their students and find ways to let students know they are known.Teacher and student laughing

“Kids learn based on what and how we teach, and how much we show we care for them.”
– Carla Santorno, Superintendent of Schools, Tacoma Public Schools 

David Brooks shared in the New York Times article, Students Learn From People They Love, “…what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students…that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”

Powerful words! They ring of “KNOWING” to me. A teacher can’t communicate “willing the good of” or “offer active care” unless she knows her students.  All teachers know some students and often unconsciously communicate the connections that enhance those students’ learning. Our consciousness needs to be focused on identifying students we don’t know, who may spend an entire day at school not being known and finding no connection. Then creating “knowing.”

I am a very strong proponent for advisories at middle and high schools to have a plan for assuring that students are known. As an advisor of maybe 20 students, hopefully for a few years, I have a responsibility to know those students and to illustrate purposefully to each student that the school responds with caring. In an earlier blog and podcast on Belonging and Relationships, I highlighted how Lake Canyon Elementary School uses a house structure to build student knowing and belonging. A video from Lake Canyon is available here.

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is:
 What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?
– David Brooks

The need for leaders to know staff and be known is reinforced in an interview, Walt Bettinger of Charles Schwab: You’ve Got to Open Up to Move Up (New York Times).

Bettinger recalls a business professor who gave him a one question final test, “What’s the name of the woman who cleans this building?” He states, And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the “B” I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since. It was just a great reminder of what really matters in life, and that you should never lose sight of people who do the real work.”

Leadership, as identified by Bettinger is different from management, “With leadership, you make a decision every day about whether you choose to follow someone. And you make it in your heart, not your head.”  A great description for me of the difference between planning for teaching vs. planning for learning.

While asking and listening are critical elements of knowing, so is telling (sharing). Bettinger describes that a leader needs to be vulnerable. Sharing of failures being more important than sharing success. David Brooks raised the same point with a story that as a professor at Yale he shared with students a need to cancel his office hours due to a personal problem. That evening he received 15 email notes from students communicating that they were “thinking of him.” He felt that the relationship with that class changed for the rest of the semester from sharing that piece of vulnerability.

Where in your school or classroom leadership are you creating purposeful opportunities to know and to be known? Purposeful planning will increase the likelihood that unplanned opportunities are not overlooked.

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “ The Impact of Knowing and Being Known ”

  1. Jan VanGilder Says:

    Wow! Good stuff! As usual, going to share with our districts! Remembering we are a team with individuals responsibilities as well as collective responsibilities is huge! Thank you!

  2. Allie Says:

    This is a great point, Steve. I still remember those teachers and faculty members-janitors, instructional staff, secretaries, french teacher, guidance counselor and coaches who took an interest in my life, strengths and knew how to push me. I can recall their names immediately and could rattle off in this post if I wanted to. Their investment in me gave me the confidence to take on new challenges and know that I had a support team to fall back on if i “failed.” This also taught me an important skillset for my career–to stay invested in the lives + careers of my colleagues and clients and to help whenever I can.

Leave a Reply

Blog: Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Listen to Steve Barkley’s Latest Podcast

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Academy for Educators

Become an expert in instructional coaching, blended and online learning strategies, engaging 21st Century learners, and more with online PD from PLS 3rd Learning.
Learn more

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email