What high school students need

A high school student’s reflection of dance class

In 1943, Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs required for personal growth and achievement to occur. Fulfillment of the lower-most stages provides a hearty base for the levels above to flourish. Like the roots of a tree, the stronger the foundational support, the more growth can occur. The graphic above, taken from Simply Psychology, depicts Maslow’s original theory.

For the most part, Maslow’s work is considered canon when developing educational philosophy and practice. While his initial 5-stages have been expanded over many decades and applied in many fields, the original provides a good reminder of what our students need in order to realize their own potential in our classrooms. It is this graphic that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind every time a student steps into my learning space.

Every year, I’m asked to write letters of recommendation for some of my seniors looking to go to college. They take a little extra time and effort, but the kids that ask are usually the ones I can easily gush about, so I feel honored that they’d come to me, instead of a subject area teacher whose letter might have a little more academic weight. First, they ask me personally if I would write the letter, then they put a request into the Naviance system, then I write and upload their songs of praise.

This year, after I completed and uploaded my masterpiece for a student, she messaged me to say that her survey was ready. I hadn’t ever seen any such surveys before, so I looked it up. Sure enough, there was a form she had filled out that reflected her experience in my classes and the positive qualities she possessed in her approach to her educational process. Incredibly self-aware (a quality that is often lacking in adolescence), she mirrored so many of the things that I had already acknowledged in her recommendation (she’s a great kid). I laughed, because it was almost as if she had written her own recommendation.

Reading her words, which were so similar to mine, I saw some common threads emerge that I have seen year after year through so many of my students’ experiences in my dance studio. They are concepts that are naturally presented to them as a matter of course that maybe I have come to take for granted in my teaching practice, because they are no-brainers for me. I have come to learn that these are the things that adolescents (and every student everywhere) need in order to have the freedom to grow, as Maslow posited so many years ago. I wanted to share some of my student’s own reflections of how her needs were met through her experience over four years in dance class.

What do students need to learn?

They need to know that you care about their well-being.

Ms. Tirro was caring enough to say that if we were feeling ill, we could sit out if we wanted to, but I never took that opportunity.

If students know you are flexible, that you have their needs in mind, then they are automatically put at ease. They can operate from the premise that if and when the day comes when their physiological or emotional states are running low, they have the space to take a step back and recalibrate. Affording them the respect that they must take care of themselves, they return the favor by being very careful with how and when they will take advantage of your good will. I always tell them from the start that even if they aren’t feeling their best, to give class a try, and if they still feel terrible after that the first ten minutes of class, they can sit out and observe. Most times, the class provides a necessary distraction for them to stick with it through the end. Sometimes, for many reasons, they just don’t have it in them to move forward that day. Being present is all they’ve got.

Big picture, I just want to see that they are trying. I am well aware of the myriad challenges my kids may face in any given day. Sometimes, they may just need to trick their brain into action, and they need a little encouragement to do so, which is why I make the case for giving it a try. Which brings me to my next point…

They need to know that their effort is valuable.

On the first day of school, Mrs. Tirro would open up with, “I’m not grading you on how good you are at dancing. I’m looking to see if you put in a great amount of effort – all you have to do is give it your best”. This was the first time I ever heard a teacher say that straightforwardly. Hearing a teacher say that made me have more confidence in myself. Knowing that I had to give it my all and that I don’t have to be this perfect student. That my best is enough, is a lesson I picked up from taking this course for all of my four years in high school. I’m a perfectionist, and I have trouble accepting that the work I do is “good enough.” But dance is what changed the way I viewed myself and my work ethic.

How can I argue with that? When you give kids the latitude to just try, and they believe that their earnest effort is good enough, it changes how they think about themselves. They work harder, develop courage, and because they feel the love and acceptance from their teacher, they can decide it’s okay to just be themselves and give things a shot. That is the entry point to unlocking their next achievement, and teaching them that they can do more, they can achieve advancement, they are so much more capable than they realize is the path we must lead them on. When the quality of their effort is rewarded, the improved quality of their product will follow. They acknowledge that they have license to become the best version of themselves and they work harder towards that end.

They need to be creative and see their efforts turn into something special.

Because we were out of school (virtual learning), we couldn’t perform in the dance concert. Ms. Tirro then came up with the idea of filming ourselves and presenting it online. It was a collaboration with students from all her classes. I remember purposely choosing dances that no one would choose or dances that seemed to have some complicated steps. It was a very fun and creative thing to work on. I enjoyed it.  Although in one part of the video it was just me dancing, I thought it was so cool to watch.

It doesn’t matter who these kids are, where they came from, what their training is or isn’t. What matters is that they have the chance to create something and contribute to something much bigger than them. They don’t need to be a soloist or a high achiever; they need to feel like they are an important part of a greater effort; that they belong there and they can feel good about it.

For years, we produced live dance concerts with over 250 kids. Most of them were in the back few rows, and they were happy to be in the back, but they were there, showing off the hard work they did in class. Together, we’d create their 3-minute dance and they played a part in the process. They would perform with their class, often for the very first time, in front of hundreds of spectators. When they’d watch it later (as they cringe seeing themselves on video), there was something in the back of their brain that has no choice but to say, “I did that.” They took some pride in ownership of the project in which they had participated.

They need to grow into the people they looked up to years before.

From freshman to sophomore year, I can say I was a shy student at first. Then during senior year, I’d say I was the student that flourished into a more confident version. I felt more assured in my abilities and wanted people to feel the same way as well. I tried my best to create a safe, friendly environment. In fact, a classmate of mine even reached out to me through Instagram asking if I could help her with the assignments, even though we never really talked. I strive to be just like the seniors I looked up to in dance.

Isn’t this the crux of education? To take kids who are scared, lack confidence, and turn them “magically” into leaders over a few short years, despite what they might think about themselves? Of course, there’s no magic. It’s all the natural development you can achieve from persistence, effort, and interest. Every year, a new crop of kids transform from the frightened follower seeking assistance and validation to proud leaders who are independent and providing mentorship. What a fantastic transition to witness, and even more incredible to have it reflected right back to you in their own words!

Most important, they need to feel safe.

Through the course of the year, I believe this class shaped me into the person I am. I entered high school as one of those students who didn’t want to be noticed and placed myself at the back of the class. But little by little I moved towards the front until I got to the spot where the Seniors I thought were role models once stood. I have stepped out of my comfort zone and revealed the enthusiastic learner that I always was. Ms. Tirro’s teaching style and the atmosphere she created made me feel safe and want to engage with other professors. I wholeheartedly believe dance is what pushed me to step out of the box I had myself in.

This is certainly the most important piece of the teaching puzzle. In order to do any of the things noted above, kids must feel safe so they can learn to enjoy all of that beautiful development. None of that can happen if they don’t feel safe. Maslow knew this back in 1943: feeling safe is second only to air, food, water, shelter and emotional stability. That is the solid base that students must stand upon in order to realize their own potential.

In the sea of revolving educational philosophy, the same themes always hold true: make them feel safe, make them feel like they matter, and teach them how to lead. Teachers must make sure they have fundamental classroom structures in place for students to try, fail, and pick themselves up without penalty. When they are allowed to develop in their own natural time, an abundance of life lessons will stick like super glue. Even more, when they reflect the self-awareness of someone who could accurately write their own recommendation letter, you know you have provided them the tools to achieve Maslow’s hierarchical peak: self-actualization.

4 thoughts on “What high school students need

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