When I was in my teacher credential program, I used to have these long conversations with my friend about what we would do when we finally had our own classrooms. We were a little bit naive about teaching and probably overestimated both the quality of our ideas and the confidence that most people would have in a couple of first year teachers. Would they seem like good ideas to people with more than a year of teaching experience? Would these even seem like good ideas to us after a few days with students? Still, I was lucky enough to work in two schools where I was able to try out a few of the things we came up with in our pre-service days, and I think at least one of them has stood the test of time.
I planned to set aside some time each week — maybe 15 minutes — for "Ask Mr. Mattea Anything." My thinking was that students have lots of questions that don’t align to the daily schedule, and this would be an opportunity for me to try to answer some of them. Why is grass green? Why is the sky blue? Stuff like that.
I don’t remember if I held court for my first ask me anything on the first day of school or if I waited until later that week, but I do remember that all of the questions students asked me weren't anything like what I expected. They were all about me.Where do you live? Do you have any siblings? Do you have a girlfriend? Stuff like that.
I continued setting aside time every week to field questions like that for the rest of the year. I saw it as an opportunity for my students to get to know me in a way that was relevant to them. I hoped that in time they would come to like me and trust me because I was mindful of my role in their lives. I was their only third grade teacher.
I was also mindful that our conversation topics were sometimes a bit unusual — probably not what they talked about with their second and fourth grade teachers. But I was one of just a handful of adults with whom they spent a great deal of time. Some of my students probably spent more waking hours with me in my classroom than they did with their parents at home.
If you were going to spend hundreds of hours with someone, wouldn’t you want to know his favorite candy bar? It seems like if teachers are going to stress the importance of relationships in schools, it can’t just be about getting to know our students. It has to be about allowing them to get to know us and modeling vulnerability. And we can’t build relationships by keeping people at arm’s length. The same goes for teachers and parents, but that's a discussion for another time.
After that year, I catalogued a list of some of the questions students asked me, along with short written responses. I shared those with students and parents before the first day of school every year, so they had some idea about who I was even more they met me. My thinking was that it would be a lot more helpful and a lot more interesting than a traditional email introduction. And once school started, I continued taking new questions every so often.
I continued the practice like that, until last year when some students asked me if they could have their own ask me anythings with the class. I was embarrassed I hadn't thought of that sooner. When we tried it out the next day, I reiterated that no one had to take questions or answer anything they didn’t want to. One of our class agreements was the right to pass. In fact, I had consciously decided to model passing on questions I was unsure about or uninterested in when I took questions from students during our class meetings and my ask me anything. We also talked a lot about the difference between high-stakes and low-stakes questions to avoid anyone feeling uncomfortable or losing face.
Inevitably, some difficult still questions came up. I remember one student asked, “Do you know anyone who has been to jail?” This actually happened during a superintendent walkthrough at the beginning of the year. I interjected and matter-of-factly said, “That’s kind of a high-stakes question. As a reminder, you can pass on that and come back to it later if you want to.” The student taking questions calmly responded, “I think I’m going to pass on that one for now.” Although students thought of a lot of questions that wouldn't have occurred to me, I don't remember another question ever throwing us off after that.
Without exception, every single student wanted to sit in front of the class and take questions for 20 minutes, so it probably took us the entire first month of school to get through everyone. I never doubted whether this was worth our time simply as a community builder, but I still found ways to integrate it with other things I thought were important — teaching class discussion protocols, ways to both initiate and navigate difficult conversations, ways to listen attentively and communicate effectively. We even video recorded the student ask me anythings, so they could watch themselves and reflect on their public speaking, their comfort level with their classmates, and questions they might ask someone they just met versus someone they have known for a little while. I hope that all teachers can find ways to incorporate more open back-and-forths with and among students.
Blogging my work as a teacher, educational consultant, speaker, and host of New Books in Education.