I Wish My Professor Knew

By Tony Kline, Ph.D.

simple truth:

Educators can be unaware of the painful realities that their students face. 

research tells us:

We know the statistics.  Poverty impacts the lives of many U.S. children.  FeedingAmerica.org reports that nearly 16 million children are inconsistently getting the proper foods each day.  And The National Center for Children in Poverty shares that 45% of US children live in low-income families.  Statistics are useful, but stories bring them to life.

An elementary teacher from Colorado, Kyle Schwartz, gave a writing assignment to her third-grade students.  She asked these 9-year-olds to complete the sentence, "I wish my teacher knew."  Such a simple writing prompt, right?  Yet, her children's answers, marred in a honest vulnerability, revealed some harsh realities of these students' lives such as, "I wish my teacher knew I don't have pencils at home to do my homework."  After the teacher shared these candid and compelling answers on Twitter, her assignment caught fire on social media and soon sparked a national conversation.  She invited other teachers to give the same assignment to their students.  Children from across the country wrote on a myriad of topics, from immigration, "I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven't seen him in 6 years" to relational challenges "I wish my teacher knew I don't have a friend to play with me."

As this story gained momentum, being an education professor working to prepare future K-12 teachers, I wanted to hear my students' thoughts on how these children's answers impacted them.  Most of my college students agreed that this type of simple, yet unique assignment could illicit insight to help educators better know, support, and connect with their students.  Searching through the twitter hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew, it looked like most of the posted responses were from elementary students.  So I asked my students if this type of assignment could be beneficial in middle or high school.  After some thought, most agreed that it could be beneficial at this age.  Then I asked if this same activity could be helpful at the university level.  Again they took some time and thought that this exercise could be of benefit.  Once they agreed, I knew what I needed to do.  

I shared that in the following week, they would have the opportunity, under a strictly voluntary and anonymous basis, to share their answers to the prompt.  I asked my students to complete this sentence, "I Wish My Professors Knew."  I wasn't sure if any students were going to participate, and if they did, what type of information would they share.  By the following week, about half of my students participated and below are just a handful of responses, which I grouped in general categories.

Hidden Personal Experiences:

  • "I wish my professors knew that I don't show my emotions frequently.  I've lived through a lot, including catching my dad cheat, and me being the one to tell my family.  With this and other events, I've learned to bottle my emotions and it is also hard for me to ask for help."
  • "At age nine, my mother who was 48 chose a 22 year old guy over her own son.  After being beaten, I grabbed a knife to tell my mom's boyfriend and friends to stop.  I was...covered with bruises.  I discovered that she lied...about everything so she didn't get in trouble. #mylife"

Hidden Feelings Of Overcommitment:

  • "I wish my professors knew that I have to work two jobs to afford my career as a student.  Not only do I pay for my schooling, but all other bills. On top of school and two jobs, I need to find time to build my resume.  All of this piles up with my personal life on top.  Sometimes I just break down."
  • "I wish my professor knew that I do try hard, but fall asleep a lot because I am working outside of class.  It is hard to sit and do a lot of work after working/schooling all day."
  • "I wish my professors knew I have to work 12 hours a week to pay for college.  I wish I could do my best work on all of my homework but I do not have time.  I also cannot always afford all of my textbooks. So it is very frustrating when I buy them and our class uses them once or twice."

Hidden Personal Health Concerns:

  • "I wish my teacher knew that I have a really hard time paying attention, but I don't want to go to the doctor for it because I might get made fun of for having ADHD."
  • "I wish my professors knew about ongoing depression in my life."
  • "I wish my professors knew there is a lot of pressure to do my best in everything I do...I just wish they knew I am only one person, I can only do so much before I break."

Wow. Now I'm not oblivious to the struggles of today's college students, I've read the numbers, heard the talks and training, and have advised students on these challenges. But to see their words.  It was powerful.  I always thought that I had a pretty good grasp on the class.  However I need to acknowledge that I do not know all of the realities my students face.  And these realities not only affect them as people, they impact them as learners.

try this:

  • Remind ourselves, that no matter how close we are to students, we may not know traumatic parts of their lives

  • If you haven't already, consider including a I Wish My Teacher/Professor Knew assignment to gain a better understanding of your students

  • Consider using "I Wish My Principal Knew" assignment, which would grant teachers-to-principal opportunities to share honest and candid input using this unique format

  • Using "I Wish My Superintendent Knew" could be a way that teachers and principals could share honest thoughts to their superintendent

  • "I Wish My Child's Teacher Knew" prompt can provide parents and grandparents the opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to their child's teacher

review & share this:

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Why do you think these types of assignments illicit such honest responses?  Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

For additional reading and referenced research, click here.