Sadly, I don’t remember all my students. I’ve taught for almost twenty years, and I don’t recall all my students’ names and who was in which class. Oddly enough, I remember A’s ukulele songs, B’s favourite cheese, and C’s nickname. I do not have an eidetic memory, but I do have countless notebooks and Excel spreadsheets with annotations from over the years.
Every semester, I scramble to remember students’ preferred names and correct pronouns. My memory is terrible. I blame years of sleep deprivation, but thankfully, I am consistent about note-taking. When students introduce themselves on the first day of class, I jot down notes. Whenever students visit me during student hours, I update my records. When students make memorable comments or observations in class, I record the incident in my notes. My Excel spreadsheet not only lists the students’ names, email addresses, and grades, but they provide information about their interests, hobbies, time zones, etc. The lists and notes are how I remember my students.
The details that I jot down are my tools for personalizing students’ experiences throughout the semester. When D emails me to book an appointment, my notes tell me that they are working in a different time zone, and I offer options that fit into their work hours. When E requests resource recommendations, my spreadsheet reveals that they can read several languages, which allows me to provide diverse sources to support their research. When F drops by to chat about professional development opportunities, my notes remind me that they are interested in pursuing graduate studies in conservation.
What do I remember about my teachers? I remember teachers who made me feel seen and welcomed. I remember the teaching assistant who stuck around their office hours because they knew I was sprinting across campus after class to reach them in time. I remember the instructor who patiently helped me decipher foreign texts and waded through my clumsy translations. I remember the faculty member who talked me down during my panic attacks. I don’t recall my grades in those classes, but the care I received is ingrained in my memory.
My spreadsheets have saved me time and time again during reference-letter-writing season. My notes also come in handy when past students email me out of the blue to say “hello.” Re-reading my notes is a walk down memory lane. More importantly, these notes demonstrate the human side to teaching and learning. Our students are not numbers. They do not just fill a class. Their interests, strengths, and curiosity shape the course and shape me as a teacher.
Even if you have no notes about a particular student, take the time to ask them something about themselves. I know sometimes there is no opportunity to meet each learner one-on-one, but if possible, take a few minutes at the beginning of class and chat informally with the people in the room. Remember back in the day when we use to engage in idle chitchat while we set up before and after class? We can still do this online. Turn on your webcam and microphone and start talking. Ask questions. Take an interest in who is in the room. Start a Padlet wall or a Mentimeter in an asynchronous environment. At the end of the day, students may not remember the course content, but they will remember the details of the time when the instructor revealed their passion for penguins or their enthusiasm for the new season of Snowpiercer. They will most certainly remember the time you saw them as an individual, and you listened.
As Lori Gard writes, “Excellence is more readily attained by being. Being available. Being kind. Being compassionate. Being transparent. Being real. Being thoughtful. Being ourselves” (2014).
Bessette, L. (2012). Remembering My Students. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/college-ready-writing/remembering-my-students
Gard, L. (2014). What Students Remember Most About Teachers. Huffpost News. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lori-gard/students_b_4422603.html