As the school year gets underway this fall, many teachers are wondering how to address the mental health repercussions of the past two years. How can we show up for our students with care at the center? How should we start to get a sense of the magnitude of trauma?
One activity that might be tempting to teachers is called “what I wish my teacher knew.” The activity went viral after a teacher asked her students to finish the prompt: “I wish my teacher knew,” and then posted the student’s responses on social media. Kids disclosed family struggles, personal interests, hopes and aspirations. The takeaway I saw from many educators was this: Wow, our students will share so much if we only ask them.
To a degree, I agree with the spirit of the activity. We should ask students what’s going on in their lives and what they want and hope for in the classroom. We should position ourselves as listeners. Being a listener is different than being a trauma detective, though. We have to be careful about whether the activities we create to “get to know you” are actually invasive and might compromise the trusting relationship we are trying to build. The truth is that we don’t need to know the details of a kid’s hardships in order to show up for them with care.
To unpack some of these dynamics, this post is about the specific activity in which students anonymously fill in the prompt “what my teacher knew.” editing to add: I heard from the originator of the activity and encourage folks to check out her book which sounds like it has a lot of similar nuance to what I write below. As with many viral teaching activities, this one has a life of its own and so my post may not reflect the version of the activity she intended, but rather the version that exists for teachers on TPT and social media.
You may be able to apply a lot of this to other activities where students are asked to share something deeply personal with teachers or the whole class. But as always, your experience is your own – take what you can from this post and I recognize I’m not speaking to every single teacher or situation.
Building or breaking trust
How long do you need to know someone to tell them something personal about yourself? My guess is that for most people, the answer is “it depends.” Context matters a lot, right? What you share with a random person you just met at a party is probably different than what you might share with a new doctor, who is bound by confidentiality laws and practices. I would also venture to guess that you have learned hard lessons about trust throughout your lifetime. Maybe you shared something with someone too soon, and it impacted your relationship. Maybe you decided to trust someone who didn’t prove themselves to be trustworthy and broke your confidence. Maybe you didn’t share enough, and found that you built too high of a wall.
All of this is to say that trust is hard, and it’s even harder when we are considering disclosure of something really important to us. “Something really important” doesn’t have to mean trauma – it can also feel scary to share things we’re happy about, proud of. Now take all of that complexity and stir in developing brains, student-teacher power dynamics, and mandated reporting laws. Things are getting a little messy, aren’t they?
When we ask students in the first days or weeks of school, “What do you wish your teacher knew?” we’re essentially asking for a disclosure. The question itself implies a secret. It acknowledges that there are things that are hidden between student and teacher, things that aren’t shared for some reason or another. The question asks students to vault over those barriers and share anyway.
Why, though? What do students gain out of being asked to disclose personal things to someone they don’t yet trust? Shouldn’t we be helping students build skills such as discernment and agency? Shouldn’t we help them make their own evaluations about who to trust and why, who to tell and when? Asking students to reveal personal stories early on reinforces an unequal power dynamic between student and teacher.
This is not to say you shouldn’t ask students things about themselves in the first weeks of school. But be mindful that trust takes time. Diving too deep, too soon can have harmful repercussions for your relationship down the line.
What will you do with the information?
Picture this: you are a restaurant and your server drops off a piece of paper at your table. “Write down what you wish your server knew about you.” You write “I am deathly allergic to ketchup” on the paper. Your server picks it up from your table and walks away. On their next pass by your table, they drop off your appetizer, complete with a giant dollop of ketchup.
When we ask for disclosure but then ignore the content of those disclosures, we can undermine trust and do real harm to students. If we ask for students to share their concerns, we have to then address those concerns. It can be deeply invaliding to ask for someone’s perspective and then blatantly ignore it. If you ask someone to disclose something, you are making a commitment to act on it. This gets complicated when you’re asking for anonymous disclosure in a classroom environment where you have a great deal of power over the students’ material conditions for a huge chunk of their time.
Before you do an activity like “what I wish my teacher knew,” ask yourself what you will do with the information. You should be prepared with your answers to all of these related questions:
- If a student discloses something they like or love to do, what will I do with that information?
- If a student discloses something they hate or dislike, what will I do with that information?
- If a student discloses harm that is happening or has happened inside their home, what will I do with that information?
- If a student discloses harm that is happening or has happened in school, what will I do with that information?
- If a student discloses something that triggers my mandated reporting responsibility, how does that impact this activity and its purpose?
- If a student chooses not to disclose anything, how does that impact this activity and its purpose?
- What do other stakeholders think about this activity, including my school leader, counselor, and students’ families/caregivers? What are their concerns or questions?
In short: if you open the door, you have to be ready for what comes through it. If “what I wish my teacher knew” is anonymous, how will you meaningfully follow through on the information you gather? I also don’t believe anonymity actually exists in a classroom setting. Consider the case in which you read something on one of the responses that triggers the mandated reporting process. You will likely need to figure out exactly which student wrote that response. What is the point of inviting anonymity if you can’t actually follow through on it?
What I’m getting at here is that this activity actually sets you up to break students’ trust, not gain it. If what we’re seeking is trust, “what my teacher knew” isn’t the way.
How will you prove yourself to be trustworthy?
This brings us to the core question I would like teachers to consider in the first weeks of school: how are you proving yourself to be trustworthy? If the goal of “what I wish my teacher knew” is to help students share what’s important to them, consider this instead: how can I be the type of person who students would trust to share what’s important to them? Rather than, “I need this activity to find out what students typically don’t want to share with teachers,” consider, “why is it that students typically don’t share things with teachers, and what could I do about that?”
When I reflect on how I’ve built trust with others, I think about a long, slow process. I think about how people showed me they could be trusted with little or insignificant stuff, whether that was showing up on time or remembering a minor food allergy when they invited me for dinner. Trust is also about how someone responds to you -whether they try to “fix” your pain or simply show up and acknowledge that you’re in it, whether they make things about themselves or hold space for others. If we want to authentically show up for students, we have to look at trust as a process instead of a given. When we push too hard in the first few weeks of school in the hopes that we can skip over the slowness of relationship-building, our efforts can go awry.
The reframe: what I wish my teacher would
I was talking to the amazing Rhiannon Kim about this blog post and she dropped a pretty amazing reframe, which I’m including here with her permission. She suggested that instead of asking students to complete the phrase “I wish my teacher knew,” we could ask students to fill in “I wish my teacher would.”
Now that’s a gorgeous reframe if I ever saw one. “I wish my teacher knew” requires students to offer up something personal in the hopes that the teacher correctly interprets what that means for learning together. By focusing instead on what we need from one another, we can build trust. If a student says “I wish my teacher would be more flexible about deadlines,” I have an opportunity to demonstrate that I am worth trusting. I can do what I can to meet their needs without requiring a payment of information in exchange.
Rhiannon also suggested adding on “I wish my teacher wouldn’t“ and using these prompts as a jumping-off point to co-create classroom culture. She said: “This practice can generate the type of learning space that will be co-created by the youth and the educators. While not every hope or wish can be honored; it is honoring that we will take time to listen to what is needed from the people we are in a learning community with.”
A few more thoughts on start of school get-to-know-you activities
Here are a few more assorted thoughts about get-to-know-you activities for the start of the school year. The goal here is to do these activities in ways that support student agency and self-determination.
- Be transparent about information sharing in your classroom. I write about this a little bit in my book, but some quick tips: be clear with students about the difference between secrecy and confidentiality. Explain your duty as a mandated reporter and what that means for students. Give examples of the types of information that you won’t/shouldn’t keep to yourself, and who you might tell (for example: “sometimes as a teacher I need support to best help you all. I might occasionally talk to the principal about what you tell me so she can help guide me. But I promise not to share things with other teachers without your permission.”) It might also be relevant to help students understand what their parents can and cannot access/request information about, and what information does/doesn’t go into their academic records. Essentially, help your students become informed so they can make their own choices about what to tell you.
- If you want to create a space for students to share things they wish you knew, do it in relationship. Do not give students an anonymous slip of paper or anonymous Google form. These leave you with no way to acknowledge and connect with students about what they shared. If what you’re asking is for students to share what they wish you knew, then it needs to be reciprocal. Here are two ways you could do this:
- Write students a letter sharing some things about yourself, ask them to write you back, and then respond to each letter.
- In a start-of-the-year survey, include an open-ended question like “Is there anything I should know about you as a learner to help you be successful in this class?” Embedded in the question is the purpose of the information-sharing, which helps students make choices about what to share.
- When planning group activities in which you’re asking students to share things about themselves, or read one another’s “I am from” poems, for example, consider how you are building emotional safety. Please read this fantastic piece by Kate Bowles on safety during classroom community-building. It has some great pointers about trust and agency.
- As you set up activities, name that students can “choose their vulnerability.” Don’t require students to share something deeply personal, and be mindful of the types of examples you give. If you share something deeply personal on day 1, students may feel an implicit pressure to do the same.
- Never, ever, ever share student responses to these types of activities on social media. If you want to prove yourself to be trustworthy, do not share students’ private words for public consumption.
Weaving it in throughout the year
Curiosity about your students’ lives isn’t a one-and-done! Build in opportunities for students to share things with you on a regular basis. In the classes I teach for undergrads, they fill out a weekly survey reflecting on their learning from the week, giving me feedback on how I did as a teacher, and adding anything else they want me to know. I frequently check in with students and have other community-building practices. A Google Form isn’t the only way that students can communicate with me, and I make sure they know that. Whether it’s circles, check-ins, or small conferences, find a way to regularly build relationships. Small, meaningful moments of connection are way more impactful than a single flashy activity at the start of the year.
Thank you to Dulce-Marie Flecha and Rhiannon Kim for being thought partners on this post.