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Professional Opinion

Data doesn’t tell a student's whole story

Teacher gets to know his students before digging into their academic backgrounds
Ramy Mahmoud teaches in the Plano ISD and is a part-time senior lecturer at The University of Texas at Dallas.
Ramy Mahmoud teaches in the Plano ISD and is a part-time senior lecturer at The University of Texas at Dallas.

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I have struggled with a certain category of students—the low performers.

These are the students who walk into class on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about me, but I represent every adult who has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure—one so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

Last year, I tried a strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom. Amazingly, this entire strategy took place on the first day of school.

Prepping for class

Let me first describe my former standard, first day of school prep. As the rosters of students were made available to me in the weeks leading up to day one, I focused on every bit of data I could acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything.

First there were the legal documents for my special education kids (IEPs, BIPs). Then I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive test scores.

I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my special education kids were separated and placed in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships and grow as groups.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high-achieving kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic.

Then I considered this same first day from the perspective of the low performer: “My teachers hate me because I’m dumb and the smart kids laugh at me. There’s a seating chart. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

New perspective

Last year, I tried something different. There was still a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Z’s at the front and A’s in the back. When the kids arrived, I told them my plan:

“I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. Any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based only on our interactions every day. Today you all start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past—in this class it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day.”

I let my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed a sincere, honest and mutually respectful relationship with each student.

Then, the two-week mark passed. Finally, I took advantage of the available data and looked up my kids—and was shocked. Kids I had pegged as gifted-and-talented were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

These kids felt as though they were equals, both with each other and with me. As we continued our journey together for the rest of the year, my “low performer” group was nonexistent.

My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them. Now I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis—I’m not.

Ramy Mahmoud teaches in the Plano ISD and is a part-time senior lecturer at The University of Texas at Dallas.