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When the Teacher Becomes the Student When the Teacher Becomes the Student
If you want to become a more productive educator in or outside of the classroom, the key is student input – you must seek it.
Dec 21st, 2005

A relationship expert once said that during an argument, there’s usually three sides to every story: his side, her side, and of course, the truth.

This is something we must definitely keep in mind as teachers. As educators (especially professors), we have been accused of having the biggest egos on this side of Mount Rushmore. One of the quickest ways to burn out in education is to refuse to embrace change. Whether we want to admit it or not, life moves and changes constantly.

Students are constantly exposed to material we once never dreamed existed. Ironically, although students are exposed to more, they typically know less and are less mature than the generations before. However, that does not discredit the fact that students still bring a unique perspective to our classroom; it’s through their eyes that we can become better teachers.

One of my best strategies for maintaining a high level of motivation in the classroom came as a result of a technique I learned as a stockbroker and sales trainer. Rule #1 in sales is that in order to bring the customer to where you are (your level of understanding), you must first go to where they are (they’re current level of understanding). In simple terms, you must know your customer (in this case, your student). This simple principle recharges and rejuvenates my batteries every semester; because the more I know, the more I grow.

Relating this concept to the education arena, you must simply and clearly define your objectives and what you would like to see happen over the course of a semester (or even a brief interaction) with a student, and then you help your students to do the same. In other words, know where YOU want to go, help them find out where THEY want to go, and then come up with a strategy for both of you to get there. In negotiating terms, they call this a win-win solution. Obviously, this strategy can only work if you value the student, and you believe he or she can make you a better teacher.

For instance, during my first three years in education, I quickly realized that what I wanted and what students believe they needed were diametrically opposed to each other. However, after many personal talks with former students, I soon discovered that students weren’t as concerned with the subject matter itself as they were with how the subject matter was being taught. They were more concerned with my attitude than the answers I would give them. This was a revelation.

I came to the conclusion that, like a parent, my experience and education dictated that I was qualified to teach them what they needed to know to succeed. However, when it came to how they received the information, I was totally at their mercy. Because, regardless of how good or important the subject matter is, if no one is listening, then no one is learning. It was at that point that I decided to “go to where they were” in order to bring them to where I was.

I met individually and collectively with students to get their perspectives on the class. I asked them about what worked in class and what didn’t? I asked them about what they would like to see more or less of? What would they like to see changed (about myself and/or the class)? I asked them if whether or not they would recommend this class to another student, why or why not? I asked them what would make the class more productive and more interesting? These questions can be asked in almost any work environment, for almost any department, not just in the classroom. I asked similar questions of my clients when I was in Corporate America.

All of the input I received, except for the individual meetings, were done anonymously. I can’t begin to tell you how important this information has been to my career. But in less than a year after implementing this idea, I was nominated twice for the distinguished teaching award at my school (the youngest ever nominated).

If you want to become a more productive educator in or outside of the classroom, the key is student input – you must seek it. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again, but expecting different results. If you listen to and solicit feedback from your students, you won’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past. So value your students and their input; trust me, they hold the keys to your success.

RealWorld University
"Where Success is the Only Major"
phone: 850.212.0227
fax: 850.222.7752

Joe Martin is an award-winning national speaker, author, professor, and educational consultant. He's the author of "Good Teachers Never Quit." Joe speaks and consults for more than 50 schools and school districts across the country each year (delivering more than 100 presentations). His mission is to help students, teachers, and administrators learn, lead, and live with purpose and passion. Joe was voted "Speaker of the Year" by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities, and he's the host of the "Good Teachers Never Quit" radio show. He's also a columnist for the Gazette. To find out more, you can visit his web sites at and

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  #1 (permalink)  
little sage on Dec 27th, 2005, 03:29 am
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

I agree that the more student input a teacher can acquire, the more effective he/she will be in guiding students to their goals and in matching those goals with those of the teacher and the course.

Having spent all of my teaching years up to now working in Asia, I've found it more difficult to acquire input from adult students here than back in the Western world. Asking students their opinions about a course, the effectiveness of such and such an activity, etc., does something to reduce the students' perception of the teacher's authority. Asian students are usually not encouraged to ask questions of their teachers, let alone comment on the teacher's method.

That being said, I do think there must be a way for the Western teacher in Asia to collect this information without diminishing his/her "authority". Collecting anonymous surveys after students have completed a course, for example.

I'd like to read other people's ideas about gathering the beneficial sort of information that is described in this article, while teaching in cultural situations other than North America.
  #2 (permalink)  
mesmark on Dec 27th, 2005, 10:41 pm
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Excellent article! Varying backgrounds really brings a lot to the table in the EFL world.

I agree that the input from students and peers is a tremendous help. It's always great to get another view point as we can only see so much and our perception my be a bit clouded.

It's not that easy for my situation though. I work in Japan and like little sage said, asking for evaluation of your performance is seen as incompetence. It's concidered very American to need that peer approval. And it's never done here, so the value of the information received is a bit sub-par.

I think it can be done, but the questions need to be well thought out for the culture and in the case of Japan simple and direct.

What did you think of the course? (won't fly)
Did you like the textbook? (OK)

- Mark
  #3 (permalink)  
Eric on Dec 28th, 2005, 02:05 am
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

good points mark and little sage. this was a common error i used to make when i first got to korea, letting students openly evaluate my performance.

but at my last school, we approached the situation a little differently and it seemed to work as we got good and fairly accurate feedback. instead of the teacher asking, "how is my teaching or how is this class", the school's director would give the adult students a questionaire for them to fill out outside of class hours. my director would physically hand them an evaluation form and they would return it to him and then he would read through all of them and average the scores and feedback. then we would meet one-on-one with the director and he'd go over the feedback.

this way, it seemed like the school was interested in how the teachers were doing instead of looking like the teacher was interested in how they were doing.

  #4 (permalink)  
korn on Mar 31st, 2006, 09:29 pm
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

I love very much with your idea to seek students' need and would you give me any suggestion to improve my pesonal skill, especially to fulfill students' interest in studying english besides you told us previously.
thank you


makasar, indonesia
  #5 (permalink)  
mrcards on Apr 1st, 2006, 10:44 am
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Wow, these articles are fantastic, really! As I'm not a teacher at the moment it's impossible for me to implement those ideas towards my students. However, I do have a regular job, and also a website to maintain. I will try to use these suggestions to make my "customers" more satisfied with our "transactions". Thank you, eslhq.

As for korn (junihar), I would suggest finding out what your students are interested in, and focusing on teaching English in that area. For example, if they are interested in American movie stars, and Hollywood movies, you can use this as a teaching tool. You can print out articles about the stars or the movies and teach those subjects. If they're just kids and are beginners in English, then they really need to start from the beginning. My suggestion here would be games, games, and more games. When you teach with games, kids learn without even knowing it, and they're having fun along the way. Good luck to you!

ESL Elite

Last edited by mrcards : Apr 6th, 2006 at 03:48 pm.
  #6 (permalink)  
Tonnij on Jul 13th, 2006, 01:09 am
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

I started teaching a new group of adults (business English)about 3 months ago. They were absolutely convinced that their English was not good enough to 'survive' in the business world. At first I babied them with lots of simple concepts - mostly functional language. Then I planned a lesson I knew would be a challenge for them - giving and following directions on grids, in towns (maps), in office buidings ... To make a long story short, some of them wanted to change to another class - a level lower. Well I did what you suggested - get feedback. Just the fact that I asked for their suggestion, comments and constructive criticism motivated everybody. You mentioned the fact that 'knowing your customer' is important. I think 'showing your customer you value their opinion' is paramount to the learning atmosphere and promotes learning. Any comments? And thanks so much for sharing your know-how!

tonnij in Germany
  #7 (permalink)  
livinginkorea on Jul 13th, 2006, 01:14 am
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Good point but just make sure that you are in charge and not them You don't want the students to be telling you what to do and then complain that you are a bad teacher! Just a thought
  #8 (permalink)  
Eric18 on Oct 23rd, 2007, 10:40 pm
Default Re: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Context matters here too. If I speak to students during personal conferences, I elicit a different type of feedback than during casual cross-campus conversations. Likewise, I have found it quite useful to provide ample opportunity for students to contribute to the class - from giving presentations and writing peer evaluations. Finally, one of my tricks is asking a question on every attendance sheet to help build class rapport and provide opportunities for students to share and reflect on the course content.
Great discussion!

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