Stephen Sroka has taught K-12 and college for over 50 years. Today, he is an adjunct assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and president of Health Education Consultants. He has been inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, presented The Walt Disney American Health Teacher Award, named the Person of the Year for The International Association for Truancy and Dropout Prevention, and received the first-ever School Health Leader Award from the American Public Health Association.
I started teaching in 1969 and never stopped learning.
After listening to my students tell me what they thought and how they felt while teaching for over 50 years, I respectfully offer these seven lessons my students taught me.
1. If students are not learning the way we are teaching, we must teach the way that they learn.
Do all students learn the same? Of course not. So why do we teach and test them all the same?
Are all students gifted? Of course they are, but some just open their boxes a little later.
All students have different learning styles, so teaching should be tailored to involve all students in activities that are interesting, fun, insightful,and useful and that let them explore their creativity, reflect on their life and develop relevant life skills that utilize all of their multiple intelligences.
Every student needs an individualized education program. There is no one right way to teach all students. The pandemic has made this obvious.
2. Students are crying out for help, and we punish them.
Many students who put themselves at risk, online or offline, with sex, drugs, violence, and anxiety and depression behaviors are crying for help. But rather than to try to help them, we punish them.
Why do we incarcerate when we need to rehabilitate? What good is it that a student can pass a proficiency test and not a reality test?
Students need life skills to prevent risky behaviors and interventions to help them overcome problems, which affect their ability to learn and live. A student is a person, not a point average.
With the concept of the whole student, and the mental, physical, social, emotional and spiritual dimensions, and the importance of the trauma-informed brain and adverse childhood experiences, we can appreciate social-emotional learning to help keep our students safe and healthy so they can learn more and live better.
3. Some students are invisible.
Some students do not speak up or act up: They just shut up. They live in the poor neighborhoods and in the rich suburbs. In fact, many students live in the suburbs hiding behind their fences, lawns and lawyers.
One Native American student sent me an e-mail after I spoke on her reservation. It read, "You must be the voice for kids like me who do not have the strength to cry for help." What you see may not be what you get with some students.
4. If you can't relate, nothing else really matters — no matter how much you know.
Teaching is about relationships. To get to the head, you must go through the heart.
As most effective teachers know, students don't care what you teach if you don't teach that you care. Trusted relationships help build positive students and better school climate. Little words and little deeds help build strong relationships, make big differences and change lives.
You can help build relationships by addressing the four challenges of communication, collaboration, cultural awareness and caring. You cannot give a student a wake-up call in a foreign language. You can't do it alone. You need to be sensitive to the culture.
Caring is crucial. If you can’t relate, everything you do is much harder.
5. We tend to treat symptoms and not the source of problems, which is often about mental health.
We frequently try to address problems by treating the behaviors and not the causes. For instance, to teach about bullying behaviors (and set up rules to stop them) without dealing with the underlying mental health issues is like putting a bandage on a cancer. You cover up the problem and it looks good, but the problem is still festering.
As we often see with destructive risk behaviors, hurt people hurt people. The use of mental health professionals, such as school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school psychologists as well as trained school resource officers, may enable us to help people help people. Today, behavioral threat assessment tools offer new solutions for old problems.
6. Students need the "3 Fs" and the "3 Hs."
There are no easy answers, but several variables seem to help our students learn and live.
Research suggests students need developmental assets such as a family who loves them, even if it is not a biological family; friends who will pull them up, not down; and faith, a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong.
My experiences suggest students crave honesty, enjoy sensitive humor, and want hope.
7. Facts are forgotten, but feelings last forever.
After teaching for 30 years, some of my former students gathered to thank me. I asked them what did they remember about me "back in the day?"
Was it the time I jumped up on the desk and took off my shoes to teach the bones of the feet, or the community improvement programs in which we participated during summer breaks? One Hispanic student piped up and said, "We forgot most everything you said, and many of the things we did, but we never forgot the way you made us feel good about being ourselves.”
In the end, for many students kindness, not content or curriculum, is what they remember. Isn't it interesting that once you get to their heart, you can teach your content and curriculum, but that may not be what they remember?
To my former students who have taught me so much, I would like to say belatedly, “Thank you. I now understand. Sorry it took so long."