How Turning to My Students Made Me a Better Teacher

I was frustrated. My students weren’t completing their homework, and I’d run out of ideas for motivating them. I didn’t know what to do. The books I’d read and strategies I’d tried got me nowhere, and despite dealing with the same problem, my peers had no solutions.

So, after days, weeks, and months of frustration, I decided to go straight to the source: my students. That’s right. I was desperate enough to consult teenagers!

Shifting Roles: How I Became the Student

I gathered my “Advisory” team, a group of 17 opinionated, phone-obsessed, and hormonal 11thgraders. Normally, we would “Circle-Up, Circle-Up” in the mornings to discuss everything from their weekend plans to their grades. These sessions seemed like the best opportunity to better understand not only my advisees but their peers as well.

I started by explaining the purpose of these new “focused” Circle-Up sessions. I was enlisting their help so I could grow as a teacher. I shared my frustrations with students in some of my classes. I explained how all the roads I’d turned to for answers had led to dead ends. Then, I introduced two basic questions:

  • Why do students complete homework assignments for one class and not another?
  • What can I, as a teacher, do to motivate my students to complete their homework assignments?

Getting the (Unexpected) Answers I Needed

My advisees brought up some great ideas. They included:

  • Earning extra-credit points for each completed homework assignment that could be applied to assessments;
  • Instituting the choice-work approach, where students decide how they want to demonstrate proficiency from multiple assignment options; and
  • Buying them lunch after six consecutive homework completions.

The two answers that stuck with me the most, though, had to do with the first question. According to my advisees, the respect and the relationships developed between teachers and students are the main factors in homework completion.

At the end of the day, effective teaching depends most heavily on one thing: deep and caring relationships.”

~Quote by Jeff Duncan-Andradetaken from

Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete

I didn’t expect those responses, and my entire plan for Circle-Up sessions changed as a result. I was no longer worried about homework completion, though that was still on the back burner. Now, I wanted to understand how my students felt in the classroom. Did they feel appreciated, and what does that even mean to a teenager? Are they being “seen”? Are their voices being heard? What does student-voice sound like in the classroom?

The answers to these questions were the solutions I’d craved all along. Since finding out what mattered to my students, I have become more aware in my classrooms. I listen more closely, I ask more genuine questions(rather than make assumptions), and I hear reasonable explanations instead of “excuses.”

Like every other teacher on the planet, I still fall short, but I’m excited to continue finding the answers I need in my students. After all, who is better equipped to help me become the best teacher I can be than those I’m trying to teach?

Edmicelly Xavier is a Spanish teacher at Paul Cuffee Upper School, an inner-city charter school in Providence, Rhode Island. Edmicelly received her Master of Education in Urban Teaching from Providence College and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Bryant University. She was born and raised in Dominican Republic and later moved to Providence, Rhode Island with her family. She was an ELL student for a year and is a by-product of the inner-city schools of Providence, RI.

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