Students – the Hidden Professional Development Resource in the school


Have you ever found yourself with the following dilemma?

You are an OK teacher, but sometimes the kids drift off in your class. Or you explain a concept for five minutes and the class looks back at you with a blank look as if you are speaking Chinese. Or, you thought the kids were with you in class, but they bombed the test. These kinds of days are demoralizing. It’s not fun to feel like its been a FAIL.

So, what are your options?

You can go to your principal, but you know she is overworked and stressed. There is a big board meeting tonight where they will be reviewing the budget for next year. The assistant principal, while nice, has given you some canned suggestions that are quick fixes but are not long term solutions. She sat in on your class once or twice but you need more active guidance. After talking to colleagues you hesitate to bring up your concerns again because they are busy grading papers and you don’t want to be the one who is always negative and clueless.

What can you do?

Yes, you can find colleagues on twitter, or make a PLN, but you want more than that. You want immediate feedback from people who understand your school, who have met you and have clocked hundreds of hours of teacher evaluations and observations this year alone.

Who are these people who can tell you how to become a great teacher?  They are sitting right in front of you. They are called your students.

That’s right. The best people who can really help get your teaching from good to great are the people who you are trying to teach.

Think about it. Who else in your school building spends all day experiencing different teaching styles? Who else can name the good teachers and mock the bad ones? Who else spends their lunch breaks doing a post-mortem of their best and worst classes of the day?

I discovered that students are the most underutilized professional development resource in a school during my sixth year teaching. One day, a junior approached me exasperated. “Mrs. Hochheimer, ” she chided “I can’t understand what you are writing on the board. This is not how my teachers taught me last year.”

For a second, I was offended. Then, that feeling subsided and I realized how lucky I was. This students had just transferred to my high school from one of the top 100 public schools in the United States. She knew quality teaching and was telling me I wasn’t making the cut.

I sat down with her and recorded her concerns. I modified my lessons and got her feedback. We were engaged in a dialogue for two years. I taught her how to learn Torah, and she helped me tighten my pedagogy.

Soon, I was demanding feedback from all of my students. My probing questions were worth five points on the test and I didn’t accept one word answers. My questions were exploratory and required the students to think about how they best learned and what the pedagogic goals of my lessons were.

The suggestions were generally mature, concrete and requested more rigorous work rather than less. Surprisingly, the students learning improved and they began to take more ownership of their class work. They began to understand what skills they needed to improve and sought ways to do so.

As the year progressed, I started to explain to the students how the learning process was working as I was teaching. I told them how pointing while reading helps fluency. I taught them why graphic organizers are helpful. They became conscious of whether they were visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. (See for more information about why metacognition is so important)

Finally, I started doing experiments in class. I would read up on a new pedagogic technique and use it the next day. They were expected to tell me the strengths and weakness of what I was doing and whether my research was correct. My class became an action research lab  (more about action research here) and we started to really innovate how we learned together. We developed a system of learning that has been successful from elementary through high school.

The story of feedback didn’t end with this class’s graduation. That group has had a remarkable percentage of successful madrichot (guidance counselors) and teachers whom I mentored without even knowing it. The first student who commented about my teaching is herself set to become a teacher. She has developed from a student with good intuition about teaching into a quality educator herself.

This chain of events all started with my being vulnerable with my students. Rather than taking my questions as a sign of weakness, the students felt it was my biggest strengths. They respected that my classroom was not about being perfect or impressing people. It was about learning, growth and authenticity. My students knew that if they came to me with a concrete suggestion I would change and when I came to them with feedback, they responded in kind.

In case you are still unconvinced, let me tell you about a friend who tried out my suggestion. I pointed her to some examples of the feedback forms I had used  . She modified the forms for her needs and distributed it to her junior class. A remarkable educator, my friend was honored the following year in the school yearbook. In the dedication, the students mentioned how meaningful her requests for the students’ opinions had been to them. They felt cared about and respected. She had asked for feedback to improve the academic quality of her class and ended up impacting the students in ways she didn’t anticipate.

Getting feedback from students is a win-win for everyone. Your teaching will improve, student learning will improve, your relationship with your students will improve and you will have identified and mentored the next generation’s most talented teachers.

Here are some important pointers to remember about feedback:


  1. All feedback requests should be goal oriented questions so that students don’t have the chance to be nasty or place blame for their character flaws on you.
  2. High school kids make awful bosses. Expect the feedback to be blunt. Learn how to steer conversations away from emotional responses to concrete suggestions.
  3. Inform your students of your classroom goals. This lets your students know why they need to be in your class and they can brainstorm with you how to best accomplish those goals.
  4. Have the students do self-evaluations of how well they have met the classroom goals. This helps them put their grades in a healthier context. Teacher feedback goes from being judgemental and punitive to being another source of information about themselves.
  5. Maintain boundaries. Getting feedback from students doesn’t make them your friends. You need to maintain appropriate and healthy boundaries with your students even as you are allowing them to see a human side of you
  6. Have fun and embrace failing as a chance to improve yourself.


Speaking of feedback . . .

I’d love to hear from you what I can write about. I have topics that I enjoy but without feedback, I can’t improve these blog posts. In a classroom, I can at least see the yawns and half shut eyes when the topic doesn’t resonate. Online, not so much.

So please leave comments about this topic or what else we can discuss or get in touch with me by email.

Next Time . . .

To be decided . . . .

See you on May 1st