Helping Students See The Value in Their Contributions

For many of us, we can recall a time in our childhood when a teacher or parent thought of us as more capable than we actually were. It parallels quotes like “she believed she could, so she did” and “fake it til you make it”. In my teaching experience, I’ve noticed that students who face difficulties and challenges both in and out of the classroom often have negative thought patterns and don’t realize their full value as an individual. In these instances, these students continue to see themselves as unworthy or lacking value. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is important that we, as teachers, recognize this mindset in our students and seek to address it. By creating and nourishing environments that encourage students to see their value, we can help to build positive thought patterns and help instill confidence in them.

Creating a Classroom of Communicators

Teachers have the ability to set the tone and the mood of a classroom. In my experience, fostering a collaborative classroom has meant getting knee-deep in the complexities of my students’ lives. How do they communicate? What do they value? How do they seek help? What do they do when they are worried, frustrated, sad, or unsure? What are the signs of mental fatigue or stress? In considering these questions, I seek to create a classroom that values communication – regardless of the situation. I want students to feel like they can share anything that’s on their mind without fear of judgment. It is my goal to make them as comfortable as possible so that they can work on communicating themselves in a variety of ways; through their words, actions, and through their work.

1. Writing Letters

Without effective communication, it becomes very difficult to ascertain what your students need and what they are truly thinking. In the past, I have begun the school year by writing individual letters to each of my students, welcoming them to the class and asking them questions about their hobbies, interests, likes, and dislikes. I ask them if they have any pets, if they participate in any sports, and what they like to do with their friends. 

In these letters, I like to share some information about myself. By revealing some of my goals, hobbies, and values, my hope is to communicate a degree of vulnerability. I want students to know that it’s okay to open up and share new information. Of course I don’t expect students to share intimate details about their life right away (or ever!). However, showing them how to be open and modeling a degree of vulnerability goes a long way in helping students feel empowered to share their thoughts, opinions, and stories without fear of judgment.

Luckily I was able to continue writing letters to my students because I worked at a small, close-knit school. I made time during the week to write to them and stick the letter in an envelope with some stickers. We exchanged letters for the first few months of school until they felt comfortable communicating more often (and with more depth and complexity) with the class.

2. Communicating Digitally

Sometimes it isn’t possible (or feasible) to write physical letters to students. For many teachers, their classroom is now a place from which to make Zoom calls and conduct online classes with students. In this case, there are still some ways to communicate with students. First, simply addressing each student by name and greeting them each morning sets the tone for a positive session. Second, giving students time to chat, catch up, and share new and interesting events is a great way to loosen up the class and bring an air of familiarity and comfort to the group. Perhaps someone noticed something new in their neighbourhood, or a student wanted to share a recent accomplishment. Building in 5-10 minutes of sharing time (regardless of age) is a great habit to get into, and it really helps start the day off on a positive note.

While teachers may find it tricky to send physical letters to students, they may find that sending emails or messages to students on the class platform occasionally is a fun way to keep in touch and continue building individual relationships with students. Nowadays, websites such as Edmodo, Seesaw, Edmentum, and other learning platforms make it super easy to not only monitor student work and progress, but to stay in touch with students on a more personal level. At a school I taught at in England, we used to choose one student from our class each week and send a postcard home outlining the ways they embodied one of our school values that week. Students loved receiving them, and honestly, who doesn’t love getting personal mail?

3. End-of-Year Surveys

Something I have always valued is giving students a survey at the end of the year. It asks them questions about their favourite topics, memorable moments, and their best work. There is also space for them to provide feedback on my teaching and how I could have improved. I think it’s important for teachers to remember that their voice is not the only voice in the room. It’s imperative that teachers can accept constructive criticism and that they value their student’s feedback and suggestions, even if it’s difficult to hear.

Before I distribute the survey, we talk about what topics they’ve learned about (many of them forget by the end of the year, as do I). We also make lists of field trips we’ve been on, celebrations we’ve had, movies we’ve watched or games we’ve played, and creative activities we’ve engaged in. This is a good way to help students remember all the learning they’ve done over the year as well as the fun activities they’ve participated in.

Once we’ve done this, I leave the room and let the students complete their surveys. In some schools, I’ve had a TA remain in the room with them, and at some schools the policies allowed for me to stand just outside of the classroom. I like to do this because sometimes students talk to each other or ask questions about the survey. Sometimes I’ve unintentionally overheard them discussing their ratings and justifying them to others! Although I do my best to give them privacy and don’t actively try to listen in, I take comfort in knowing that they ask each other for advice and share their opinions with one another. It feels like they are taking seriously the act of giving feedback, therefore reinforcing the idea that their voices are important.

Embracing Challenge and Difficulty

There has been a lot of discussion around the idea of “Growth Mindset” and how it is interpreted in classrooms. A major issue with the concept is in the way it’s taught. Simply hanging an anchor chart and explaining the difference between a closed and a growth mindset isn’t going to cut it. Students can’t be expected to “just act” simply because the teacher is changing the practices in the classroom; the focus should be on implementing practices that focus on growth and learning. For example, if the classroom environment makes students feel afraid to make mistakes, then having beautifully created anchor charts won’t make much difference.

1. Normalizing Mistakes

Embracing challenge and difficulty can certainly be positive by-products of embracing a growth mindset, but it should emerge from other changes as well. For example, creating a classroom environment where mistakes are celebrated is a good start. When I taught math in the U.K, I told my students I needed them to make mistakes because I needed help explaining what NOT to do. By framing it this way, students began actively offering to share their mistakes or misunderstandings because I framed them as a learning opportunity for everyone. In doing this, the students felt like they were contributing to the learning of the entire class. It really helped the students feel more comfortable with their mistakes, which was my goal. Several colleagues of mine used this approach too, and commented on the positive changes that occurred as a result.

2. Make Accommodations

I have never placed too much emphasis on the specifics of a project. If a student is more comfortable sharing their knowledge in a new or different way, I am usually on board. If students work better in a small group or by themselves, I try to be flexible. Sometimes there is little room for accommodations; for example, if you are evaluating a students’ collaborative skills, it would not be wise to let them work alone! However, I’ve found that the particulars of an assignment of a project can usually be negotiated to a degree. When they cannot, it’s important to offer choice. When students feel a comfortable degree of control and ownership over their work, it helps bolster confidence. In my experience, it also helps students feel like their decisions matter when they feel they’re being heard.

3. Reframing Difficulties

It is crucial that students understand that their academic struggles are separate from their intellectual abilities. Someone who may have a hard time reading fluently might, in fact, be some of the deepest thinkers and understand underlying messages in a novel easier than anyone. I had a student like this once; she really struggled to read fluently, but her ability to identify tone, mood, and the theme of the novels she read was outstanding, and far above her grade level. Fortunately I still have the pleasure of reading with her weekly and discussing her thoughts on the young adult literature she’s currently reading.

Students who struggle with aspects of certain subjects – for example, math – often decide that they are simply “bad at math”. It is important to break down those limiting beliefs and remind students that the subject they claim to be “bad” at is varied and complex. Highlighting things they are good at in that particular subject can help ease the anxiety and self-doubt they have about those subjects. It can be a difficult challenge to overcome, particularly if parents with limiting beliefs about particular subjects pass these beliefs down to their kids. Of course this is usually done unintentionally, but is always something I try to gently recommend stopping in order to prevent negative self-talk from continuing.

Emotions and Empathy Card Game

(this is an amazing resource for anxious and emotional students):

At the ground level, the classroom is a great place to start untangling those limiting beliefs and help students realize that some topics are going to be difficult. We don’t need to ignore them or blow them out of proportion, but simply acknowledge them and consider them as opportunities to grow and learn. Through regular discussion and communication with students, we have the ability as teachers to reinforce the idea that learning can be difficult and messy at times, but we can ultimately succeed, and that the process is just as important as the progress we make.

Everyday Changes

At the most basic level, implementing simple changes to teaching style and lesson delivery can make a big impact on students. For example, using genuine positive reinforcement and making authentic observations can help students to visualize their value and promote confidence.

1. Utilizing Positive Reinforcement

Students are not always going to get it right; neither will teachers. It’s easy to encourage positivity and praise in the classroom, but sometimes it can feel forced or disingenuous. In my experience, I’ve found that three things are important to remember when giving positive praise and reinforcement. First, using the names of your students in your praise makes a huge difference. Students love to hear their names in the classroom for positive reasons. Furthermore, it makes the praise feel more personal and genuine when you include a name.

Second, I’ve always found it helpful to tell students that I won’t lie to them – if they’ve done a poor job, I’ll let them know (politely). Any praise that I give them comes from a genuine place, and is based more so on effort, not necessarily skill. I am more interested in the attitude the students have, the effort they have put into something, and the development of their soft skills (collaboration, communication, resilience, etc).

Wonderful Empowerment & Affirmation Cards: 

 Finally, make sure the positive reinforcement is specific. Understandably, there are times when teachers throw a “good job!” or “keep up the good work!” out, but I try to limit those comments because, to me, they aren’t as meaningful. Instead, I try to find something specific that a student has done well and make an effort to “notice” it. Here are some examples:

  • I really value the effort you put into this, [name]!
  • [Name] you’ve really persevered on your project, I’m so impressed with you!
  • I can really tell you’ve put a lot of detail into [specific thing], [name]!
  • I know you struggled to start, [name], but you have made such amazing progress, I’m so proud of you!
  • This is an amazing [specific thing], I can tell you’re really into this stuff, [name]!
  • I am so inspired by the way you helped [another student], [name]; you have such a kind heart!
  • I can tell you value [something specific], [name], this is really great!
  • It makes me so happy to see you working so well as a team, [name], especially when I heard you [doing something specific].
  • It must feel so good to know that [something specific] is finished, and that you put so much time and effort into it; I’m so proud of you, [name]!

2. Offering Choice

When introducing a project or assignment, my colleagues and I have tried using choice boards, which I’m sure many teachers are familiar with. A choice board is a support that can be used by students to communicate the activity or task they would like. Usually these consist of at least 3 different choices for the student to pick from; the most comfortable choice is usually selected. The outcome of the task is usually the same, but the way students complete the task is entirely their choice. This provides students with a sense of control over their decisions. It also helps students see the value in their contributions because they are being given the trust and authority to make decisions for themselves. In turn, this can significantly boost their confidence.

I really like using similar approaches with older students; for example, offering a high school English student 5 quotes about the class novel to choose from to analyze. A further example could be in allowing students to choose how to communicate their end-of-unit knowledge. Some students, for example, might find it easier to express their understanding through a documentary, while others may prefer to write an essay or create a powerpoint. Others might decide to perform a skit or create a fact board or brochure. Giving them the trust to make those decisions and to talk with them about their ideas helps them recognize their ideas as valuable and worth implementing.

3. Listening and Asking Questions

Professional DevelopmentThe Relevant Classroom: 6 Steps to Foster Real-World Learning

Demonstrating a personal interest in students is a great way to not only encourage their participation, but is also important for building a strong teacher-student bond. Students are more engaged and active in the classroom when they feel that a trusted adult takes the time to listen to them, ask them questions about their lives, and genuinely cares for them. This isn’t a big surprise to anyone!

There are numerous benefits to asking students questions and listening to their answers attentively. While it is not always possible to offer one-to-one interaction with every student during every lesson, teachers should strive to have one small, individualized interaction with each student during the day. This can be a simple “How was your baseball game last night?” or “Did you finish that book? How was it?”

A smaller trick I use is to say my students’ names often. It sounds obvious, but adding their name to the beginning or end of a compliment or a message of thanks can go such a long way because students are more likely to internalize it because you’ve said their name.

Other Ways to Help Students Feel Valued:

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