School Solution: Student Assistant Teachers

Lehmann has written about SLA’s Student Assistant Teacher program before, but as we just had our first meeting for the program today, I thought I would give you a window in — hopefully to convince you and your high school to give it a try.

In brief, the SAT program brings seniors into underclass courses as, well, a teaching assistant. They attend that course full time, and they work with the teacher to provide learning support as fits the class needs, and also their personal interests and inclinations.

Here are just a few examples of what my SATs have been up to since the start of the school year:

  • Observing group dynamics and making seating charts.
  • Giving feedback to student ideas for thesis statements online.
  • Floating around the room and checking in with small groups as they work.
  • Picking out relevant quotes from a text to share while we’re having an all-class discussion.
  • Sharing their own experiences or advice for a particular assignment (they’ve all had me as a teacher before.)
  • Building personal relationships with students who would rather go to this “expert student” for help before they ask me.
  • Cluing me in when there’s some confusion about a task, or a group that’s having trouble getting along, or… really anything else I didn’t notice.

Obviously they didn’t do all of this from day one. However, I’d like to point out that we’re only around day 30, and they already do a lot. Part of this is the general culture of transparency at SLA — we like to talk about teaching and learning, so kids are paying attention to our methods even before they choose to become an SAT. But it’s not automatic.

I have had SATs in my classes for three years now, and at first I struggled to help them find their place. (Turns out saying “do whatever you want!” isn’t very instructive.) Each year they become a richer, more authentic resource in my classroom. With 30+ students in each class, that makes a huge difference.

That’s not the only benefit, though. Their very presence helps me, in a way I didn’t expect at first.

One of the things I really didn’t know about teaching until I was in the thick of is how lonely it can be. You’re surrounded by students all the time, but in many ways you’re totally on your own in your classroom. While our SATs are not professionals — and I would never ask that level of commitment or responsibility of them — they come to inhabit the same mental space as I do. When something kicks butt, they notice. When a lesson flops, or doesn’t make sense, we can figure out why. When something absurd happens, we can laugh about it later. More than once I have told an SAT, “I was glad you were there for that.”

All of this is swirling in my brain after our first general SAT meeting, facilitated by the wonderful Alexa Dunn and Josh Block (who run the program). This meeting is no joke — it involves over half of the senior class, and most of the teachers in the school.

Part of the meeting involved a quick check-in with all of my SATs together. I see the value of the program for them all the time, but today’s meeting really confirmed it. They already know their strengths and weaknesses as students (reflection is one of our core values, after all) but this work allows them to feel out their skills in a real setting. They take pride in growing their own abilities, and are delighted when the students in their class see them as a resource.

So, have I convinced you to bring this to your school yet?

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