Role Reversal

Teachers reflect on the learning experiences students have given them


Photo by and used with permission of Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

A student sits in a classroom that is led by a teacher. Although teachers are the ones who educate the youth, students often offer valuable learning experiences and new perspectives for teachers.

Ruby Lueras, LZ Life Editor

Whether it’s breaking down the quadratic formula or instructing students how to drive, teachers are an integral part of each student’s day. More often than not, teachers are the ones guiding and mentoring students through school and prepping them with skills to succeed in life. However, there are moments where students offer a learning opportunity for teachers, where they provide new perspectives on topics teachers may not have ever thought about before.

“I call those moments beautiful mind moments. I always teach to think outside the box, but my box is pretty small and I don’t always see what my students see,”  Linda Maves, math teacher said.  “[For example], at the beginning of the year I had a student who was trying to explain to me what he was seeing while reading piecewise functions. It was just very eye-opening to me because I was really trying to put myself in his situation and understand what he was seeing. We must have been on a zoom for about a half-hour just talking about one problem in particular.”

Nina Kothari, school psychologist, says that learning from the students she sees is just one reward of the job. According to Kothari, one perspective-changing student, in particular, comes to mind from when she used to work in an elementary school and an early childhood center. She says he had moved from the Chicago Public Schools into her district and was facing a lot of challenges.

 “It was a really tough year for him because he struggled a lot behaviorally, and I felt like teachers started to have kind of negative feelings about him and so did his peers. Being a new student was really hard because he came into this negative environment.” Kothari said. “Sometimes you hear teachers talking and they’re like, ‘oh my gosh I had this kid and he was so challenging to work with,’ and I would try to frame the conversations into something more positive to advocate for the students. What I learn about the students and their home lives and their struggles is what I try to make teachers understand. You can’t just kind of sit there and let them go, you need to work with them, and I think that’s something I’ve learned from students throughout the years and try to educate others on.”

Kothari says that establishing a “trusting and open” relationship with her students is crucial for her job. According to Kothari, she often talks about very personal topics with her students, so having that relationship makes it easier to have those difficult conversations. Kothari works hard to build a good relationship and says it all starts with the initial connection.

“Instead of going straight to business on the goal [a student and I] need to talk about, I really try to get to know them first. I want to know what kind of things [they] like to do outside of school and really just show that I’m interested in learning about the kid and who they are,” Kothari said. “I like having that background on my students because I think it helps build that deeper connection instead of solely focusing on what we need to work on.”

Maves attributes the fact that students are able to provide her with those “beautiful mind moments” to her strong relationship with them. She says she comes in early and stays late every day to offer her students extra time to work with her and to “learn and grow from their mistakes.”

“When you have a better relationship with your students they’ll try harder for you, and they’ll feel more comfortable sharing their perspective,” Maves said. “Some years I will even use what kids have taught me, and I will pass it along to other students. I think that really helps because it gives students more options and shows them that not just one way is the right way.” 

Kothari says that the pandemic has allowed her to learn a lot more from students than she originally expected. According to Kothari, this year is unlike any other because she’s seeing students who are really struggling with the pandemic and seeing how they are persevering.

“They still show up. They still go to their classes. They still show up for social work. And I think that that is a celebration; showing up is a huge part of the battle and being willing to continue to work and grow is just amazing to me.” Kothari said. “It inspires me to want to do the same. It’s hard for the staff to show up during these times, it’s hard for me to be motivated and I feel like my students motivate me to show up and continue to work hard. They show me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s worth it.”