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by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement

What if a group of students told you that they couldn’t remember the last time you said a kind word to them? Or, if they struggled to think of something they could do that might prompt a school adult to say thank you? What if some of your most challenging students told you that the best teachers are strong classroom managers with warm, kind hearts?  

Listening to our students...and meaning it.

I began working with a middle school in June to support their work with Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). At its best, PBIS is a way of naming the systems, data, and practices all schools use to support their students’ social, emotional, and academic achievement. Because PBIS connects strongly to the day to day experiences of students, the principal and I decided that hearing directly from the youth we served would be essential.

While administration recruited students, I focused on facilitating the conversation. What mattered most was that students were honest in their conversation and that teachers were courageous in their listening. As I thought about how to support students and teachers in this dialogue, how I framed the questions and how the conversation occurred were essential.

Framing Questions:

  • When was the last time a teacher said something positive to you?  What was it about?
  • What kinds of things do school adults like to see kids do? How do you know?
  • As you think about the best teacher you’ve ever had, what was it about them that helped you grow?

When was the last time a teacher said something positive to you? What was it about?

“Like what do you mean? Like getting a good grade or something?”

“Do you mean like just to me? Or like for the whole class?”

“Is this about the PBIS tickets? I think I got 3 all year.”

“I can’t really remember anything specific, really.”

What kinds of things do school adults like to see kids do? How do you know?

“A teacher said ‘Thank you’ to me for holding a door for them once.”

“We don’t really have a rubric for behavior, so it’s hard to know.”

“The lunch people seem to like it when we pick up trash.”

“Staying off our phones, and getting work done.”

As you think about the best teacher you’ve ever had, what was it about them that helped you grow?

“I used to think I wasn’t smart, but I had a teacher who kept telling me I could learn anything that the other kids would. They let me come in for lunch or recess, and they’d help me.”

“This teacher would put up everyone’s work, not just the ‘smart’ kids work. And, this teacher would let us know what was good about what went up.”

“I knew this teacher cared about me because they told me. They said “I care about you,” and they did it all the time.”

“For me, it’s better to learn with a teacher that is in charge of the room, and still finds way to be a real person with us.”

As I talked with this group of middle school students, teachers were listening and taking notes at a table further away. After the students left, we talked about what this conversation meant to us, and how we felt it connected to our practice. One example is how students struggled to recall times when a school adult gave them positive feedback. To be effective, positive feedback must be remembered. And, if students aren’t remembering instances of positive feedback, it is time to increase the quantity and quality of positive feedback throughout the school. The foundation of Positive Behavior Intervention and Support is that students are successful when we as educators are systematic about recognizing the good that each child brings to school.

Another insight was that students couldn’t think of many concrete examples of what a child might do to elicit positive feedback from an adult. One student connected their thoughts on this topic to academics, saying “We don’t really have a rubric for behavior, so it’s hard to know.” When social and emotional learning and behavioral expectations are taught alongside academic expectations, both kinds of learning thrive. Positive Behavior Intervention and Support’s purpose is to help all students—without exception—attain higher levels of social, emotional and academic achievement by ensuring that expectations in all three categories are clear and explicitly taught.

The most important insight, however, is that our students want to feel connected not only to their peers but to us, their educators.  When asked to think about their best teachers, they talked about educators who communicated in words and actions every day that each of their students mattered to them as individuals, and that they cared for each and every child in their learning space. Essentially, to be remembered as a teacher who cares about your students, say with sincerity “I care about you,” in whatever words are authentic to you. Then, follow up with actions that show that you mean it.

I’m grateful for the bravery of the teachers who sought their students’ candid feedback, listened to what their students said, and reflected on this conversation so powerfully. Building strong relationships with students means being vulnerable to our students and giving them a space to speak their truth. When a school listens to the kids—and means it—the likely result are systems, data, and practices that support all learners.