Kori Hamilton is a writer and editor for the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY).  She has a love and  passion for children, particularly those typically marginalized.  Her desire to improve the experiences that children have in school led her to pursue her doctorate in Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Arizona State University.   Her hope is that her work in education has meaning and directly touches the lives of children.

Working as a secondary teacher in South Central Los Angeles brought some of the best times in my life.  I gained a perspective from students that dispelled my assumptions about their thoughts and feelings.  I remember when I first set foot on the middle school campus, fresh out of college and excited to begin my work in the classroom, I encountered a question that I had not anticipated.  At least one student would ask daily for the first week, “Are you our real teacher?”  I would answer their question with a question. “Whose name do you see written on your schedule?” “Hamilton”, they would respond. “I am Hamilton. And yes, I am your real teacher.”

Educators often find ourselves engaged in conversations about how to address achievement disparities, discipline issues, the recruitment and retention of effective teachers and administrators, but how often do we allow students to weigh in on the subject?  Students have unique perspectives that are very real; they live what we theorize and problematize.  But who listens- really listens – to what kids have to say? Schools serving students from lower socioeconomic and diverse linguistic backgrounds experience retention problems among teachers and administrators, and often transiency within the student population as well.  The impact of retention is reflected in the very simple question, “Are you our real teacher?”

Sadly, our students rarely receive an opportunity to voice how the revolving door of teachers impacts their feelings about or experiences within school. Students are not commonly seen, and student voices are not commonly heard, in meetings and discussions about K-12 education policy. Yet the adults who control policy, including educators within districts and schools, could learn much from listening to what students say about their experience with school, about their interests and desires for learning—and about what they do and how they learn outside formal school.

On a promising note, listening to students does not depend on any particular expertise, and any individual who likes young people and values their opinions can elicit student voice. It takes time, persistence, and organization, but it can easily take place in the context of a classroom or school focus group. The following are recommendations for gathering the ideas from students in order to gain their perspective:

  1. Root the process in inquiry. Begin by developing questions that will yield answers to what you’re most interested in learning about. In the case of teacher retention, we might ask, “What are the reasons you believe teachers come to work here?” and “What are some of the things that happen here that make teachers want to stay here or move on to another school or profession?”
  2. 2. Make sure you’re talking to students with divergent thoughts and ideas. Often educators invite students who are successful in school or who participate readily in extra-curricular activities to engage in focus groups or dialogue sessions about school improvement.  This is a mistake, as it provides limited perspective.  Academic success should not be a requirement; instead, hearing from students who struggle in school can shed light onto all sorts of dilemmas waiting to be solved.
  3. Keep groups small. Typically, small groups of three to five students work well.  But larger groups, such as advisory or focus groups of around twelve students could also help gather the ideas you’re looking for.  Small groups allow students to feel more comfortable and safe in sharing their true feelings and also allow time for divergent voices.
  4. Ask for specifics. Because students are as ready as adults to rely on generalizations or abstract ideas, it is important to seek supporting details and specific situations in their responses. If a student complains about a teacher, for instance, it is important to drill down to the offending behavior instead of merely recording the student’s annoyance. Students get used to questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What is that like for you?” As students work together, they grow more adept at supporting their own assertions and probing each other’s experiences for nuance and contradictions.
  5. Analyze the material together. Because the goal of eliciting student voice is for them to offer advice, it is important to ask for their suggestions. Analyzing their suggestions together helps ensure your accurate understanding of their ideas, thoughts, and perspectives.
  6. Create a written product. Putting their ideas in writing lends a sense of purpose to your conversations. Often, this document can be as simple as a word cloud (available on wordle.net) outlining their most commonly used conversation themes or it could involve a writing assignment from the students themselves (such as a report or a persuasive letter to the Board of Trustees).  Having to create a written document adds seriousness to the endeavor.

We could learn a lot from students, and schools could be better, more inclusive places if we sought out and valued their input.  By providing students with spaces to be heard we might even find that they have much to teach us, if only given an opportunity to share.

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8 Responses to “Are You Our Real Teacher? Student Voice in Teacher Retention by Kori Hamilton”

  1. Lisa on 2/9/12 4:25 PM US/Eastern

    Great article Kori! I appreciate the reminder that we often forget to listen to the voices of our students. They have a lot to say and can be a very important part of resolving any problem we may face.

  2. Tony C. on 2/9/12 7:28 PM US/Eastern

    Kori, This is very insightful. Great work you are doing, keep it up!

  3. Kori Hamilton on 2/10/12 11:23 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you for the comment. We have to support and remind each other that all of the work we are doing is for children and they probably have plenty to say about it.

  4. Kori Hamilton on 2/10/12 11:23 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you, Tony.

  5. Lisa Lacy on 2/10/12 4:22 PM US/Eastern

    I am in agreement with Lisa’s comment, your article provided a reminder to those of us in schools, who often forget to listen to our students’ voices. Students, often have their finger on the pulse of the school.
    Thank you for your moving article!

  6. Tiffany Martin on 2/10/12 11:30 PM US/Eastern

    Great article KJ

  7. David Hernandez-Saca on 2/11/12 7:26 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Kori,

    Thank you for sharing your story and this excellent/practical list of ideas for us educators to elicit student voice.

    Our schools, especially in low income settings, are underserved and maybe oppressive for students, therefore gaining their viewpoints about their felt-lived experiences is imperative.


  8. Dr. Andrea B. Rodriguez on 7/25/12 8:04 PM US/Eastern

    “Are you our teacher?” speaks loudly to the interpersonal and relational aspects of teaching and learning, which are neglected when there is high teacher turnover. Some teachers don’t get to be the “real’ teacher for the whole school year or even for a few weeks, leaving students without the adult connection that leads to educational commitment. Students do need a “real teacher” to lead them through the total learning process. Revolving door substitutes will never be the answer.

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