Inspiration: Getting to Know Your Students
Click read more below about how to make your students believe and buy in to your sales pitch....
For the next few weeks, Ethan kept in close contact. He called several days later to see how I was doing. At least once a week, he e-mailed me helpful pointers, videos, and website links so I could get to know my vehicle. Ethan was only a call or email away when a question popped up. Last week, I received the email that I knew was coming: it was Ethan’s goodbye. I had owned my car for a month and was now ready to be on my own. Of course, Ethan reassured me he could still be contacted if I had any questions or wanted to refer other people to be his friends, but he would be initiating no more messages.
The things that made my car-buying experience a positive one are similar to the factors that make a positive educational experience for our students. Teaching, after all, is a sales job. What we have to sell, however, is often a lot harder to sell than what Ethan was peddling, and our customers are a little less eager to buy in. (It’s also--dare I say it?--more important because you’ll get a lot more mileage from a good education than you will from even the best-made automobile). After all, I walked onto the car lot wanting to purchase a car and fairly certain of what kind I wanted. Students, on the other hand, don’t always enter the classroom convinced that what you’re offering them is something they actually need. That’s why you’re going to have to make a convincing sales pitch, appealing to students’ pathos, ethos, and logos (that’s emotions, sense of moral duty, and logic for those of you who’ve slept since--or who slept through--tenth grade English). Hook their hearts, their morals, and their minds. Even if you’ve taught this same lesson six periods a day for the past 44 years, you have to make the kids think it’s the best, most interesting, and most worthwhile thing you’ve ever seen. Your students will only be as enthusiastic as you are. I had a teacher once who told me she hated The Once and Future King, the novel we were just beginning to read in English class. Guess who decided to side with his teacher and mentally check out of that unit before even giving it a chance. I’ve made it a point to never let the students know I don’t love whatever I have to teach on any given day, and, following suit, the vast majority of my students have attempted to share my enthusiasm. I am certain that the safety features of the new car I bought were not the most exciting topic Ethan could think of to discuss, but he made me think they were something to marvel over.
Good salespeople know the importance of establishing rapport with each customer. That’s why Ethan became my BFF for a month and why teachers need to work doubly hard to make connections with their students, especially with the unruly or recalcitrant ones who do all they can to make themselves difficult to like. Every book I’ve read on classroom management or about working with at-risk populations emphasizes the importance of the relationship piece above all else. Even a simple hello at the door as students enter your room can begin to build that relationship. Make a point to find out something each student is interested in and something each is proud of and have a quick conversation about those things from time to time. Give students your full attention during class time; let them know they are what is most important to you at that moment.
Part of establishing rapport with students involves celebrating successes with students. Just as Ethan made my purchase feel like a partnership and seemed excited for me when I found the car I wanted, teachers should let students know that learning is a team effort. It’s not us versus them. We want them to succeed--maybe more than they do--and we will stick with them as they struggle and cheer them on when they get it right.
One of the questions I asked Ethan during my car shopping was why I should buy the make of car he was selling instead of the one I have owned previously. He was able to rattle off a list of reasons--some practical and some emotional--why his brand was the best. Teachers hoping to sell their subjects to students need to be ready with a compelling “why” for every lesson. And I recommend sharing that “why” even if students don’t ask for it.
Like Ethan and other excellent salespeople, a teacher has to be patient. I came back three times to test drive cars before I made my decision. I asked stupid questions about the GPS, how the “sport mode” worked, the type of fuel I should use, and more. Never once did Ethan act as if answering any of my queries was a burden or a chore. He did not roll his eyes. He did not sigh audibly. He did not tell me, “I have already answered that question.” Ethan created a safe environment for me to be curious, to learn at my own pace, and to ask the things I wanted to know more about without fear of ridicule or judgment. Wouldn’t it be great if all classrooms were similarly conducive spaces for learning?
Ethan offered me ample support and assistance during the car-buying process so that I wouldn’t get stressed out or overwhelmed. He continued to offer support afterward, while I still needed it, and he tapered off the support as he became convinced that I could operate the car on my own. This gradual release model works beautifully with students. Teachers offer the most support when students need it the most and slowly introduce resources and other outside assistance to the students to help them learn to handle their questions and think for themselves. Teachers are always there to swoop in when students need emergency roadside assistance, but the goal should be for the students to learn to drive away on their own. Just as Ethan can’t ride around forever in my passenger seat and answer every question as it pops up, teachers don’t want to have to follow our students to college and continue to check their homework when they become adults. We need to be able to say reassuringly, “I’ve given you all you need to be successful. Now you’re on your own.”
In so many other ways, teaching is not like a sales job. We don’t make commissions on what we sell; we sometimes don’t even know whether we actually made the sale at all. Our rewards and motivations are different. But we can find satisfaction in knowing that what we are selling is one of the most precious things on earth. In ways no material possessions will ever be able to, education has the power to positively transform the lives of our customers, our students.
Secondary English Language Arts Instructional Specialist