Affirming student differences: Getting to know students

Kristen Whitaker, 2015 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, once said, “It is important that we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of our families. To try and help them, we need to understand them without judgment.” Many educators would agree that knowing students and their families is a stepping stone in affirming student differences.

To fulfill this need, educators must position themselves as learners, a suggestion made by many other Toyota Family Teachers of the Year in Stronger Families, Stronger Communities. This may require practitioners to step outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s when we step out of our comfort zones that we truly experience the growth needed to serve a diverse student population. 

How can practitioners truly get to know students? Start with a few of these ideas:

  • Engage students in one-on-one conversations. 2012 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Shari Brown shared, “If you do not first make a personal connection with your students and allow time for a relationship, they will not trust you with their educational and personal pursuits.” To truly connect with students, look them in the eye and show an interest in them. Ask them what they’d like for you to know about them. Some educators even ask students to write letters about themselves in the first few weeks of school. However you do it, learn about your students. 
  • Make positive phone calls home. Practitioners sometimes fail to realize how powerful it is to make the first communication with families a positive one. When home culture constantly clashes with school culture, families get used to regular negative communication. Establishing positive communication shows families you care about the success of their children and recognize their positive contributions. Building a positive relationship with families early in the school year improves your ability to get to know your students and where they come from.
  • Attend extracurricular events. After a long day at school, many educators may find the idea of attending an after-school event exhausting. However, an hour or two supporting students at an extracurricular event is always time well spent. Attend a game, sponsor a club, or help out with another afterschool program. Experiencing your continued support will encourage your students to trust you and give you the chance to learn more about them outside of the classroom.
  • Invite your colleagues on Community Walks. When Ryann Miller led his colleagues through the streets of their students’ community, he found that “Our teachers didn’t become experts overnight, but the experience showed them that they needed to grow.” A community walk can be an eye-opening, energizing, and motivating experience for any school staff.
  • Make home visits. Like many teachers, Kristen Whitaker was apprehensive about entering her students’ homes. However, after a few visits, she discovered, “I enjoyed getting to know the families I teach, and that the collaboration between teacher and family always benefits the students, family, and community as a whole.” Home visits give educators and families a chance to know and empathize with each other. There’s no better way to learn about your students than to tap into the greatest source of knowledge about them–their families.  
  • Make families part of the school environment. Communicate regularly about what’s going on in your classroom, as well as school and community events. Break down the barriers preventing family engagement by finding ways to provide transportation and childcare services at school functions. Plan multicultural programming, and offer enticements (such as food and prizes) to incentivize family attendance. Not all families will be able to attend school events, but increasing accessibility for as many families as possible should be a top priority.

All educators understand the importance of knowing how their students learn–and apply that knowledge to their pedagogy. But truly powerful educators understand the importance of knowing their students on a deeper level. How will you learn who your students and their families truly are?