How to Walk in Your Students’ Shoes

Thalhimers, shoesWe’ve all heard the phrase “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” How exactly do we teach our students how to do that when we struggle with it in our own lives?  I learned a neat technique many years ago that allows me to experience first hand how it feels to be one of my students.  When I remember to use it, the technique gives me some real perspective into the experience of being with me in a conversation.  I tried it out with my son this morning and he said I should blog about it.  He suggested teachers use this tool to see how it is to be one of their students.  Here’s how it works:

Find an empathetic friend and tell your friend about a particularly challenging student (or person in your life).  Don’t use too much detail, and it’s not necessary to use actual names.  You know who the person is.  This is a broad stroke exercise.  You want to give your friend information that explains why the student is challenging, such as, “He always argues with me,” or “She never seems to be paying attention.”

Next, pick a topic.  You can talk about homework, a class project, or even the lunch menu.  It doesn’t matter what you talk about.  What matters is that you notice how it feels to be the other guy.

Third, ask your friend to participate in a conversation with you.  Your friend will be playing the part of you.  This gets a little tricky because rather than play yourself, you get to play the annoying student.  Your job is to be the student when the student is at his best; no annoying habits, arguments, or backtalk.  Your friend gets to play you when you are expecting the worst from your student.  Your friend will behave in this made up conversation as though he is you when you are annoyed by the expected behavior.

Finally, have an impromptu conversation.  As you play the student, notice how it feels to talk with someone who expects the worst from you.  It takes only a minute or two after starting the conversation to see just how difficult it is to be your student under these circumstances.

This seems like a fairly simple exercise but it can produce profound insight.  As teachers we have no control over whether our students have a good breakfast, lose a pet, or have a rough start to the morning.  We can only control our own behavior.  This is true in every area of your life.  When I had three kids under the age of five with me most of the day I would remind myself when patience wore thin that my kids will remember my response to their antics long after they have forgotten their challenging behavior.

It is a simple but important thing to remember:  Children have good and bad days just as adults do.  We hope as we grow older we will develop coping skills that our students may not have discovered.  These soft skills are often overlooked when people talk about what it is that educators do in the classroom.  Teachers, however, are keenly aware of the lessons we teach every day that have nothing to do with what’s on the test.  When it seems the curriculum is overshadowed by “teachable moments”, take a breath, find a friend, and practice what we teach: compassion, active listening, and walking in another person’s shoes.

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