Written By: Hans Appel
"Asking questions is one of the best ways to grow as a human being."
As a counselor, I frequently find myself in a position of talking to students who need help; although, sometimes the help they need isn’t actually from me. Ironically, they seek my guidance or thoughts when they should be talking directly with a teacher. Maybe they’re struggling to understand a concept. Or perhaps they’re having a conflict or feeling disconnected with a teacher. Other times, they may have a desire to make a change to some aspect of their learning. While students hopefully view their counselor as a safe advocate, we often work to empower them to plug back into their own student/teacher relationships and follow-up directly with the adult who can most appropriately help them.
However, students’ avoidance of asking teachers questions makes me wonder:
Where does this inquiry based trepidation come from?
Would you like to know the most frequently uttered statement by teachers to parents during conferences: I’d really like to see him or her ask me more questions. What prevents some students from seeking help? Ok, sure, at the secondary level, and even upper elementary level there are a multitude of factors that play in with peer acceptance near the top. ‘Peers might think I’m stupid if I ask this question.’
Fair enough. Social pressures for teenagers weigh heavily and can greatly influence their willingness to seek help. Talented educators recognize the need to create a safe space where classmates can support inquiry. Yet, the reality is, there are so many opportunities to ask for teacher assistance, in quiet non-observable to other peers sorts of ways. Students can talk to teachers during work time, before/after school, lunch time, over e-mail, google classroom, or any other technology program. Some of my introverted readers might be quick to point out, that Susan Cain’s “Quiet” would remind us that personality types impact their boldness to ask questions. Yes! A student’s outgoingness absolutely affects their frequency to ask verbal questions. Although, I’m not quite as convinced that a propensity toward introvertedness precludes all online questioning. Indeed, teachers have found exceptional ways of eliciting student participation from our quieter students, through the use of technology, personal connection, and warmth.
If I hadn’t witnessed an overt discomfort to seek help by consistently ALL ranges of personality type over the last 19 years, I might have been content to conclude that peers and personality were the only driving force preventing inquiry. Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda, authors of “Let Them Speak” so eloquently explain that if we want to know WHY kids do something, why not just ask them! So, I have...for most of my career. What keeps you from asking the teacher? While there is no denying personality and peer influence as impacts to students’ willingness to seek help fear of teacher response is clearly involved. There’s actually three categories of this fear: Witnessed, Perceived or Experienced. A major fear factor that students cite:
“I’m afraid the teacher will make me feel stupid.”
Now, before I get a litany of hate mail from all educators for saying that teachers make kids feel stupid. Let me clarify. Many teachers have incredible relationships with students who feel super comfortable asking questions or seeking help. But every educator has encountered some students who truly struggle to seek help. Very often, when talking with these students, this fear of 'looking stupid' can be directly traced back to specific moments. Thus, I don’t think for a minute that most teachers ever TRY to make a student feel stupid. Just the opposite! Most teacher WELCOME student questions, as an integral part of their practice. So, for the most part, let’s assume good intentions on behalf of the classroom teacher.
We’ve all experienced a student asking a question that has already been asked. At times, teachers may feel like a broken record as they restate the same responses over and over. As teachers know, sometimes the SAME questions are repeatedly asked again and again in front of the entire class. There are a variety of learning, health, and internal reasons for students to ask literally the same question that another student has asked; and experienced educators demonstrate patience and empathy when working through these responses. While this can be frustrating to the educator, make no mistake...how we handle these moments will determine our students eagerness to ask for help, in the future.
How do YOU respond to this repetitive inquiry? Do you:
**SHUT IT down?
**Elect to use SARCASM?
**Openly MOCK or point out to the class that this is the same question?
**WARN the entire class not to ask the same question that has been answered already?
**Provide a general implication that this is somehow a ‘stupid question’?
However, this pitfall of inappropriate response to questions does not ONLY apply to repeated questioning. On the other hand, maybe a question has been asked in a quieter moment (work time, before/after school or even lunch time) but the answer seems obvious. As an educator, have you ever said any of the following?
**Come on, you KNOW how to do this.
**I don’t think you’re even TRYING right now.
**You don’t know HOW to do that?
**I thought you would’ve known how to do this one.
**That’s an EASY one.
Ironically, the interesting takeaway is that it actually doesn’t matter if an educator said this directly to a particular student or a student simply WITNESSED any of these responses; ultimately, their welcomeness to ask questions might be impacted.
Additionally, you may have NEVER said or even thought any of these above responses. However, one of the deep dark secret problems with education is that students often predict YOUR behavior on what they’ve seen previously from another educator. (I.E, a teacher I had in 4th grade said this, when I asked a question, so now I’m concerned that my 7th grade teacher might respond in the same way).
Are counselors, admin, and other educational professionals immune to this unseen barrier for help? Absolutely not! In the same way that teachers must actively overcome certain student's past experiences to find real connection, all educators must work tirelessly to create positive moments within our sphere of influence. Trust, me I see this in counseling relationships every year. People have preconceived notions based on a previous counselor, outside therapist, social worker...or even doctor. Additionally, because I have an office in a similar location as the school administration, sometimes new students anticipate an administrative encounter, when entering my space. All educators must work hard to intentionally teach students HOW we can help!
In this teacher question scenario; however, a student’s EXPERIENCED moment impacts their comfort level on asking a question. And again...it can be both personally experienced or witnessed. For instance, a student’s self dialogue might include remembrances of another student in middle school being mocked and now their gun shy to ask a question, years later in their high school class.
Lastly, students may PERCEIVE a negative response to questions based on a limited ability to predict your behavior due to low levels of connection to you. Thus, if I don’t have a strong connection to you, I may postulate that an interaction will be negative even if I have no evidence to support this. In a student’s mind, a lack of a relationship never suggests positivity. Therefore, I won’t ask questions of educators who I’m not connected to. I know. This sounds very gloom and doom. I”m basically saying that students bring all previous educator interactions, relationships, and perceptions to your classroom, office, or school.
Do you think this is just a kid problem? Having worked with thousands of parents over the years, let me just assure you that they bring all the same types of biases, expectations, and concerns from both their own childhood educational experiences AND their child’s experiences. Some parents can be incredibly skeptical of school systems, educators, or programming based on previous challenges. It can take years of relationship building to overcome tightly held school beliefs.
Beyond students and parents, educators themselves can unknowingly be ‘taught’ or conditioned not to ask questions, share opinions or generally speak up. I will NEVER forget witnessing a well respected teacher get publicly berated for offering an answer in a staff meeting. The administrator at the time asked for a volunteer to answer a question. This bright, leader, who was outgoing and confident was made to feel small and stupid in a quick throwaway moment, during an August inservice meeting. Years removed from this, I don’t recall any of the actual words used during this exchange but the feeling in the room and the teachers reaction later were burned in our collective memory.
“I’ll never speak in another staff meeting again!” the teacher confided to a small group of us that afternoon.
Indeed, it took administrative turnover before this wonderful teacher did choose to speak, ask questions, or share thoughts again in an open forum. Additionally, everyone who witnessed this uncomfortable exchange, was also in some small way traumatized and given powerful information on how questions, answers, and responses would be welcomed by this leader. People often say they encourage a risk-taking and mistake making environment but their actions illustrate a completely different story. In this one fleeting character-weak moment by an administrator, the culture and climate of our staff meetings were negatively altered FOR YEARS!
For those that think these negative moments must be specifically in public forums, in order to do real damage, I’ll share a common pitfall. Many professionals claim to have an open door policy. They believe that physically having an office or classroom with an open door ensures that feedback, interaction, and query is welcome. The real test of this, however, comes from how we handle critical feedback. If we immediately shut down criticism, opinions or insights that vary from our own perceptions, the proximity of the door to door-frame will have NO consequence on whether anyone will actually walk through again. People will simply stop entering your space. On the other hand, maybe criticism isn’t the only anthesis to a failed open door policy. What if we’re busy, distracted, or preoccupied in such a way that the staff member, parent, or student recognize that our open door policy might be held back by convenience. Essentially, we’re saying to the world, I have an open door as long as it’s a good time for me. Is a door with limited availability actually ever open?
Furthermore, exceptional educators are realizing that relationships are built outside of their own space. Getting outside the classroom, office or even school is critical to forming relationships that invite others to seek your help.
For instance, one small thing our counseling group has done to increase connections and openness to others seeking help is to move out in the hallway during passing time. Our purpose in the hallway isn’t to monitor or supervise students. It also isn’t about visiting with other adults. It’s an intentional move to connect with students as they pass outside the counseling center. It’s incredible how much more approachable you seem with a smile, fist bump and saying hi to students by name.
Administrators around the world are taking a similar approach with flexible work stations set up in classrooms and hallways as a way to intentionally become more visible and available. The beauty of these roaming office spaces is it ensures thoughtful leaders have a chance to multi-task while being a presence for positivity amongst their people. By utilizing a wheeling desk and/or roving cart around the school they effectively communicate that I'm here to serve YOU...wherever YOU are. [Highly recommend interested administrators check out Ergotron for incredible flexible work spaces].
Educators in an Award Winning Culture recognize current and past barriers toward seeking help and ACTIVELY create safe and welcoming conditions to support students, parents, and colleagues.
Obviously, we can’t change the past, nor can we control what others have already experienced. However,
**How will you intentionally create systems of support for your QUIET students?
**How are you measuring and evaluating your current relationships with students, parents, and other educators?
**What are some positive ways to respond to repeated questions, incorrect answers or critical feedback?
**What non-verbals might YOU be giving off to certain folks that make you seem unapproachable?
**How might you demonstrate HUMILITY when working with others?
**Upon reflection of past experiences and responses, who might you need to APOLOGIZE to TODAY?
As highly trained professionals, we invariably find ourselves in a position to SERVE, SUPPORT, and SCAFFOLD people on a daily basis. Our actions both direct and indirect impact our ability to empower others to develop their joy. Education can reach incredible heights when we intentionally strive for excellence in our interactions with others.
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 18 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Recently, Hans launched his own blog about School Culture and this fall rolled out a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture: Hosted by Wildcat Nation, which can be subscribed, listened or reviewed on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and Libsyn. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Hans on twitter @hansappel094. Follow AWC on twitter at @awculture or Instagram @awardwinningculture. Wildcat Nation at @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emscounseling #WildcatNation #AwardWinningCulture
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.