Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 3. Knowing Your Students

Now that you’ve got your room out of the way, it’s time to concentrate on the students with whom you will be working. Within a very short period of time, you will be exposed to over a hundred students, each with individual needs and unique names to memorize and pronounce correctly. If you think that’s overwhelming, just think about foreign-language teachers who not only learn the real names of each student but also their assigned Spanish or French or German (or Russian or Japanese or Latin) names.

Learning the names of students quickly is only one of your initial tasks; you will also want to accumulate some basic data on each of your students.


One straightforward way to collect information on your students is to ask them to fill out index cards on the first day of class, beginning with their names at the top. You can also ask them to suggest ways to help you remember how to pronounce their names correctly (such as with pictures or phonetic spelling).

Not all students go by their given names. Many have preferred nicknames. Some are diminutives such as “Jimmy” or “Susie.” Others are common, such as “Junior” or “Bud.” One boy told me (Ellen) he wanted to be called “Boogie.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Because he wrote he was a football player, I went to see one of the coaches. I told him I had a student who wanted to be called “Boogie” and asked him what the story was. He assured me that it was okay; everyone called him Boogie.

On succeeding lines of the index card, there is room for all sorts of information. One line at a time can provide a place for the following:

•   Name and nickname.

•   Address.

•   Telephone number(s) (sometimes students have their own telephone numbers).

•   Birthday.

•   Age.

•   Mother’s or guardian’s name, telephone numbers at home and work, and e-mail address, if available.

•   Father’s or guardian’s name, telephone numbers at home and work, and e-mail address, if available. You may also want to inquire as to what hours the parents or guardians work.

•   Language skills. (Ask, “What is your first language?” then “What languages are spoken in the home?” “What languages do you read?”) Here, you will learn if there is support in the home for English language (or foreign language) activities. Some students will not be able to get help with their homework in subjects such as English grammar if their parents or guardians do not speak English. This information will be useful in planning for communication with parents where translators or translations may be needed.

•   Interests and activities. (Ask students: “Do you play an instrument?” “Do you play sports?” “What activities do you participate in before school? After school? Until what time?”) Here, you will learn what responsibilities your students have—who baby-sits, who cooks for the family when parents are at work. It’s also important to know whether the student works or not and if so, how many hours per week.

I (Ellen) had one student who was always falling asleep in class, although he seemed like a very capable learner. At first, I thought it was a motivational problem, then that he was just being obstructive. Finally, I remembered to look at his card, and I discovered an obvious clue: He was working 40 hours a week in a restaurant. No wonder he couldn’t stay awake in class!

Other information to ask for on the index card might include the following:

•   Goals. What plans do you have for the future? What would you like to do when you graduate? Or, what do you hope to learn from this class? Some teachers like to ask what grade students would like to get as a way to find out something about their expectations for the course.

•   Something you would like me to know about you. One way to provide students with an opportunity to give you information secretly is to ask, “Is there anything you would like me as a teacher to know about you?” This is particularly useful for gaining personal information. Students will write about things that they are not particularly comfortable telling you face to face or in front of other students. Problems are revealed: “I stutter.” “I can’t see from the back of the room.” “I am really nervous about learning to drive.” “My mom just had a new baby and the baby cries all night, so I don’t get very much sleep.”

You can personalize the questions to fit your subject area as well.

In a language class, you might be interested in knowing if the students have pets or how many brothers and sisters they have, because these can be topics for future discussion using basic vocabulary. In English, you might ask, “What is the last book you read or the best book you’ve read?” In a history class, you can ask, “What is the last movie or best movie that you’ve seen related to a historical period?” In any class, you might ask, “What would you like to review from last year?”

The cards quickly provide basic information about your students that will help you to get to know them. They offer an opportunity for your students to tell you some things about themselves in a private, non-threatening manner.


Cary Jay Kottler Call me Cary. Spanish name: Carlito Born: Nov. 25, 1987 I’m 16.

We speak English at home, although my first language was Spanish when I lived in Peru when I was 2.

My mom works at the school district so I can’t get in trouble. My dad works at the university.

Baseball is the most important thing to me. We’ve won 5 State Championships in a row.

If I can’t play baseball professionally, then I have no clue what I’m going to do.

Besides baseball, I guess I like music, movies, and girls. Once in a while, I will read a book.

I gotta tell you: I’m not crazy about Spanish. Hopefully, you will change that for me.

Although the information cards can contain a lot of useful information, remember to ask students to write legibly so you can read their answers.

One time, I (Ellen) misread a boy’s first name and called a girl’s name with his last name. Both of us were quite embarrassed. Sometimes, attendance lists are not provided until the second week of school, so your cards may be the only accurate information you have about who is in your class.

One nice thing about index cards is that they are easy to handle. In the beginning of the school year, the cards can be organized alphabetically, for taking attendance and recording grades. Later, they can be organized by calendar sequence so you can acknowledge birthdays. Being wished a “Happy Birthday” does much for a student’s self-esteem.

The back of the cards can be used to keep records of parent contacts. Use the space to write the date, time, and notes about the nature of the conversation.


It will take some time to get to know your students individually. A good rule of thumb is to model what you expect of others. If you want students to be open and forthcoming in the ways they present themselves, then you should be prepared to do so as well. Students admire teachers who are not only experts in their subject area but who are also compassionate, caring, accessible, and human. If you want students to be open and honest, then you will wish to demonstrate these values in your own behavior as much as possible.

You are about to create and maintain a community in your classroom, one that we hope will be based on mutual respect and trust, a place where it is safe to express ideas, to ask questions, to challenge thinking, to reflect on learning, and to personalize what is presented in meaningful ways. To encourage your students to show the requisite courage needed for contemplative learning and constructive risk taking, you must show them the way through your own behavior.

You may want to begin your classes with some sort of introductory exercise designed to help students learn one another’s names, develop some cohesion and trust, and create a climate of critical inquiry. For example, you might ask students to give their names with adjectives that describe them whose first letters are the same as their first names. Some teachers like to ask students to do collages, fill in a “coat of arms,” design a T-shirt, or answer a set of interview questions. The knowledge you gain will help you get to know your students. At the same time, you will be giving them the opportunity to get to know each other and build a sense of membership in the class.

Getting to know your students and helping them to feel comfortable with each other are the first steps toward a successful year.


We’re sure you’ve heard how important it is to become aware of the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the people in your classes. This includes not only race, but also subtler and less obvious elements such as religion, family traditions and dynamics that may be culturally determined, and the way gender roles are defined according to the student’s ethnic and cultural background. For example, some students will not ask questions when they don’t understand an idea or a direction because they have been taught not to bother adults. Questioning may not be valued in their families. Students may simply tell the teacher what he or she wants to hear—yes, they understand an assignment; yes, they can do a math problem—even when they in fact could use some help. Their cultural backgrounds may dictate that they are passive in the classroom rather than active participants.

One way to address this challenge is make an effort to involve each student in class proceedings. Try writing each student’s name on a popsicle-type craft stick and keep the sticks in a can, pulling them out as you need “volunteers.” Another idea is to instruct each student who speaks in class to select the person to talk next; however, the rule is that the student may pick only someone who has not yet participated. This ensures that students don’t only call on their friends, and no one ends up being left out. Regardless of what method you use, it is indeed a challenge to achieve equitable participation in class so the same loud voices don’t always dominate. Another secret is to pass out index cards (or have each student take out a piece of paper) and have them write down a question or response to a prompt for you to address in class. This way each person’s contribution is included. You have the choice of including names or not. To see if students understand a concept, pose a question and have students write down their answers without identifying their names on the papers. This way you are not responsible for and don’t have to take the time for giving individual feedback and recording grades, but you can see if students have mastered an objective.

Body language differs from group to group. Certain cultures teach that children should look down, averting their eyes as a sign of respect. Other cultures teach that a child should not look away but should look directly into the eyes of the person who is addressing him or her. To avoid problems of communication, the teacher must examine his or her culture and the culture of the students, and be aware of cultural differences when interpreting both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Your students may come from a variety of socioeconomic levels, as well. Those from families with high socioeconomic status (SES) tend to have stronger academic backgrounds, show higher school performance, and have access to more resources than those with lower SES. Those from lower SES backgrounds will need more support.

We (the two senior authors) happen to currently work in a school that the rest of the world will soon resemble. A third of our students are of Asian background, a third are from Latino origins, and a third are “other,” meaning they are North American “whites,” as well as European. The majority of students speak another language at home, and many are immigrants. What this means is that as teachers we can no longer hold onto one reference point of expectations. There is no “dominant” culture to rely upon as a norm. Needless to say, this makes for some very challenging situations that require flexible attitudes for adapting how we teach to an increasingly diverse population.


Teachers need to provide equal opportunity for and interact equally with girls and boys. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 guaranteed equal educational opportunity and, therefore, banned discrimination based on gender. In the early 90s, studies examined gender differences in the classroom and showed that boys received more attention from teachers than girls; are more likely to take advanced math and science and related classes; and continue in gifted and talented programs longer than girls. Studies also showed that girls received better grades from elementary through college, and though identified more often for gifted programs in elementary school, they did not continue in them. While later studies challenge these descriptions and indicate progress in this area, gender equity continues to be a focus area.

Teachers need to be aware of their own behavior, biases, and how they use classroom resources. When planning activities, involve girls and boys equally and use cooperative learning. You can do this by assigning seats that have boys and girls sitting next to one another, assigning group members rather than letting them choose their own, and calling on girls and boys rather than letting them call out answers because boys typically answer more frequently than girls. Take some time to develop a monitoring system (like putting names on popsicle sticks to pull out of a jar, as described above, or recording on a seating chart) to assure you call on all students equally. Find instructional materials that have male as well as female models and examples and that challenge stereotypes. Encourage and praise all students in mathematics, science, and reading, not just those who obviously excel.


Your class is likely to contain gay and lesbian students as well as heterosexual students. Teachers need to establish a safe environment where teasing and sexual harassment are not tolerated. Several court cases in recent years point to the need for school personnel to take a more active role in this area. Whereas states and local districts vary in their positions on this controversial issue, teachers must emphasize respect for all people and immediately confront harassment of any kind. Let students know that name-calling and derogatory comments are not acceptable behaviors.


Students with special needs today are placed in the least restrictive environment possible. Therefore, you are likely to have students with varying abilities in your classroom. You may have students with visual impairments or blind students, hearing impairments or deaf students, speech or language impairments, physical impairments, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, mental retardation, or emotional disturbances. Even within each disability, there is a range of differences. Therefore, it is important to look at the specific profile of each student to learn his or her strengths and weaknesses. Each student with identified special needs should have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The special education teachers in your school will have suggestions for specific strategies to use with individual students. Contact the special education facilitator with any questions you might have. For those with severe disabilities, you may have an aide or a paraprofessional to help you daily in the classroom.


Students differ in how they receive and process information, but they will have consistent patterns of response. In order to promote student achievement, teachers must recognize their students’ learning styles.

Sensory Modalities. You are probably aware that students receive information through their senses. Some learn best by seeing information; these are the visual learners who process the world primarily through observation. For them, graphic organizers, charts, tables, pictures, and videos are essential.

Others learn by hearing; these are the auditory learners. They prefer to hear new information. They would rather hear a story than read a book. For these students, learning is enhanced by audiotapes and videos. They may be particularly responsive to music.

Some students like to touch objects and manipulate them. These tactile-kinesthetic learners benefit from drawing, creating models, and acting out situations. Of course, a multisensory approach in the classroom will benefit all students.

Global/Analytic Style. This learning style refers to how people process information. The global learner uses the right hemisphere of the brain to focus on spatial and relational processing. This student goes from whole to parts, looking for patterns and determining relationships. The analytic learner uses the left hemisphere of the brain for linear processing. This student moves from the parts to the whole, looking for details on which to base an understanding. While students use both approaches, some tend to rely primarily on one style or the other. Teachers need to model both ways and provide student opportunities to practice both approaches.

Field-Independent/Field-Dependent. Students who are field-independent like to work alone. They enjoy competition and like individual recognition. Field-dependent students prefer to work with others. They like to collaborate and look to the teacher for direction. Again, teachers need to offer activities related to both styles—providing times when students can work individually without the teacher as well as times when they work with others under the teacher’s supervision.

Impulsive/Reflective. Some students are quick to answer questions, make predictions, and guess solutions. These are the impulsive responders. Others are more reflective and take their time to reply. These students do not want to make a mistake and answer carefully to avoid errors. Teachers must provide ample wait time for students to formulate their responses and encourage other students to be patient. Reflectivity is a common mode of response in many Far Eastern cultures.

As you will see in the following table, by planning and implementing a variety of strategies, you will be well-equipped to address the learning styles of your students.

Learning Style Type

Sample Teaching Strategies


Verbal directions, direct instruction


Pictures, graphic organizers, videos


Artifacts, models, acting out ideas


Look for patterns and relationships


Present details for analysis


Cooperative activities


Self-directed projects


Ask for predictions


Provide time to formulate responses


Students also differ in their intellectual capabilities. Howard Gardner identifies eight categories in which students have strengths and weaknesses. They include: verbal-linguistic, naturalistic, interpersonal, spatial-visual, musical-rhythmic, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, and logical-mathematical. In planning lessons, you can use these categories as guidance in developing your presentations and planning corresponding student activities.

An easy way for a beginning teacher to address the multiple intelligences in the classroom is to assign students to do a project in the “spirit” of a given intelligence or have them choose their own. They can work individually, with a partner, or in a small group. While it is not possible to plan for students to engage in all eight categories for each lesson, it is possible for you to give students the opportunity to explore each during the course of the year.


Teacher Support Suggestions

Verbal-Linguistic (ability to form thoughts and use language for expression)

Provide supplementary reading

Hold discussion groups

Have students do presentations

Naturalistic (ability to understand the natural world, flora and fauna, and negotiate in the environment)

Have students interact with plants and animals

Explore the natural environment

Interpersonal (ability to communicate with others)

Have students work with a partner

Involve students in cooperative learning

Spatial-Visual (ability to judge space in relation to people and/or other objects)

Bring in artifacts and pictures

Do demonstrations

Have students create models and pictures

Musical-Rhythmic (ability to create patterns of sound)

Play different types of music

Use jingles, chants, and songs as a way of introducing and retaining information

Have students put on musical presentations

Intrapersonal (ability to think about thinking, reflect, and self-assess)

Provide students with time to reflect and self-assess

Have students create journals

Bodily-Kinesthetic (ability to move skillfully and manipulate objects)

Have students create and perform skits, role-plays, and simulations

Logical-Mathematical (ability to discern logical or numerical patterns)

Have students categorize information, find sequences, and cause-and-effect relationships

Utilize inquiry methods and project-based learning

As time goes on, you will get to know your students and they will get to know each other through their participation in class activities. Through discussion, writing, and various demonstrations of performance, you will become more and more familiar with each student’s personality and his or her needs and interests. You will also come into contact with other school professionals who will provide additional information, for example, through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).


Students with extraordinary intelligences and abilities will also be found in the regular classroom. These children learn quickly and can absorb more material at higher thinking levels if allowed to pursue interests independently. Often teachers will pre-test students to find their prior knowledge or skills and then allow gifted and talented students who show mastery to proceed at an accelerated rate or engage in alternative enrichment activities. Teachers can help these students by providing additional resources and allowing them to work on self-directed projects. Be sure to acknowledge their progress. Using flexible grouping will enable advanced students to work together to produce projects or presentations reflective of their abilities.


Alerting yourself to special events in the lives of students will help you communicate your sincere interest as well as encourage them in areas that are most important to them. If you know from the information you gathered that a child is involved in forensics, band or orchestra, cheerleading, track, or the school newspaper, you can keep an eye out for times when you can let him or her know that you are following his or her progress.

When I (Cary) was in junior high school, one of my teachers made a point of congratulating me for having my bar mitzvah. This made a big impression on me. It let me know she really cared about me.

My favorite teachers have always been those who showed me that they really cared about me. Like when I pitch in a baseball game, a teacher will let me know that she knew about it. Even if I don’t really like the class much, I will still give that teacher a break in ways I never would with someone who just acted like I wasn’t important to her at all.

When I have a problem or something, the teacher I’m going to talk to is going to be the one who seems to care.

Paying attention to rites of passage and giving appropriate recognition will help cement relationships. For freshmen and sophomores, those special moments include getting braces off their teeth and getting their driver’s licenses (refer back to the index cards to watch for upcoming birthdays). Most teens get their licenses on the first try, but some do not and may be disappointed. Some are not permitted to get their licenses right away (for example, their parents may feel they do not have enough driving experience, or they may be punishing them for some prior behavior), and that can be a source of embarrassment. The first school dance or prom can be a time of great apprehension for boys and girls.

The big events for juniors are the college entrance exams. Results of test scores can be a confidence booster or a major letdown. For seniors, in the fall, early responses to college applications arrive. In the spring, the regular decisions on college applications come in. Responses to requests for financial aid will be forthcoming at this time. Also, invitations to the senior prom can be a source of apprehension and concern.

Watch the student and community newspapers for articles of recognition. Sports achievement is the obvious one to watch for, but check community organizations as well. For example, during the high school years, some boys complete their Eagle Scout training. Students enter all types of contests and competitions that they might not talk about in class: chess tournaments, writing contests, and so on.

Teachers often give examples of how their relationships with students changed in positive ways after they had observed students in after-school activities. One teacher related that after he watched a soccer practice, a student who had been somewhat belligerent was not a problem again in his class. So, whether it’s the opening night of a play, or a choir practice, attending, if not participating in extracurricular activities is a good way to establish rapport. It takes time, but it is well worth the effort.


There is much to learn about your students, and they will reveal themselves in many different ways—through their participation in class discussions, their writing, their conversations with you, and their interactions with others you observe during class and through extracurricular activities. You will have the opportunity to learn about their families and their community. You will get to know some students more easily than others, so you will need to be patient and give yourself time.

As we will explore in greater detail in later chapters, the single most important thing you will do in your work is develop positive, constructive, supportive relationships with your students. This forms the foundation for everything else you do to promote learning and growth. It all begins with taking the first steps to learn your students’ names and basic interests as soon as you possibly can.