As teachers, we hear this saying a lot. It comes from the mouths of administrators, teacher-scholars, colleagues, and accrediting bodies. Yet, I get the sneaking suspicion it means something different out of each mouth. What does it even mean?
I asked myself this question today as I talked with my sister-in-law who teaches English to university students, CEOs, and professionals alike. As I listened to her experience of leading an intensive four-day English training, my answer to this question emerged. She told me that her students varied from beginner to expert, and this made her work that much more difficult because as she moved from student to student, she had to constantly shift her responses according to the needs of each individual.
While I do not teach English as a second language (at the moment), I do teach critical thinking, reading, and writing, and it is no easy task. Each of my students is at a different cognitive level and joins my class with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. There is no sign posted to their foreheads and no advance copy of their skills is sent to me. Sure, they were accepted to college and have grades and test scores, but none of these numbers or letters illuminates how well they understand my assignments, the readings in my class, or their ability to process concepts or theories and apply them in their own projects. No student is a cookie cutout. There is no one mold or template, and so when I practice the mantra of meeting students where they are, it looks a lot like this: asking a pointed question, listening to answers, asking follow-up questions, repeating the instructions, defining terms, answering more questions, rephrasing questions, listening to what they say, saying back to them to make sure I understand what they say, redirecting the question, coming up with a more pointed question, offering suggestions, reading drafts, providing feedback, reading another draft, answering the same question again.
I’m not sure if this process described above is what other pedagogues mean when they say meet students where they are, but it is the best answer I came up with today. We first have to gauge where each (usually one of about 24) person really is in their thinking ability, contrary to where they think they might be. Then, we must point to a place we want them to be. Meeting students where they are is an improvisational dance that I must do with each student in each class four times a day.